US, South Korea Speed Up Troop-Funding Talks with Trump in Mind

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South Korean K1A2 tank fires during a joint live fire exercise between South Korea and the U.S.
A South Korean K1A2 tank fires during a joint live fire exercise between South Korea and the U.S. at a military training field in Pocheon on Jan. 4, 2024. (Jung Yeon-je/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The U.S. and South Korea have reached a deal to discuss funding for American troops this year, local media reported, a step that could ease friction between the allies after former President Donald Trump once demanded a five-fold increase.

South Korea and the U.S. agreed to begin talks soon on a funding pact, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper and other media reported, citing diplomats they didn’t name. It added Seoul may aim to reach an agreement later this year.

The reason to speed up the normal calendar for talks is to try and reach an agreement ahead of a potential new Trump administration taking office, the newspaper reported. The current deal expires at the end of 2025.

“Our government plans to systematically and strategically prepare for the next round of negotiations while holding close consultations between South Korea and the U.S.,” Lim Soo-suk, a South Korean foreign ministry spokesman, said at a regular briefing on Tuesday.

Yonhap News reported that the two sides agreed to start talks this year, citing a diplomatic source, but added it’s difficult to say whether an agreement can be reached in 2024.

Trump, when he was president, had asked South Korea to contribute about $5 billion for hosting some 28,500 American military personnel, well above the one-year deal in effect from 2020 where Seoul paid about $1 billion.

The price tag originated with the White House, according to people familiar with the matter, and was a non-starter in South Korea with both the progressive ruling and conservative blocs seeing it as exorbitant.

Trump had repeatedly insisted that the U.S. gets a raw deal from partners who host American troops around the world, and he’s focused particular ire on what is known as the Special Measures Agreement with South Korea.

Despite Trump’s criticism, South Korea spends a larger share of its economic output on defense than many other U.S. allies. American troops in South Korea are intended to provide a front-line defense against North Korea and potentially China.

Shortly after taking office in 2021, President Joe Biden reached a troop-funding deal with South Korea, where Seoul agreed to pay 1.18 trillion won ($1.04 billion at the time) to the U.S. for security in 2021, a roughly 14% increase from 2019. Seoul would pay 5.4% more the next year, with similar increases annually until 2025 under the deal.

Biden worked to repair rifts with South Korea and Japan caused in part by Trump’s demands for hefty increases in troop funding. Since then, the three countries have stepped up military cooperation to new levels, set up real-time systems to share information on missile launches and trained together on missions to hunt for submarines and defend the skies.

Earlier this week, Trump tightened his grip on the Republican presidential nomination after Iowa voters delivered him a victory in Monday’s caucuses and moved him one step closer to returning to the White House.

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