South Korea agrees to boost funding for US troops by 13.9 percent

South Korea agrees to pay 1.18 trillion won ($1.03bn) for the upkeep of US troops there, ending year-long deadlock.

US and South Korean soldiers attend the 5th ROK-US alliance dinner in Seoul, South Korea, November 14, 2019 [File: Kim Hong-Ji/Pool via Reuters]

South Korea has agreed to increase its contribution to the cost of hosting troops from the United States by 13.9 percent, according to an official.

The hike, announced on Wednesday, will take South Korea’s payments towards the upkeep of US troops stationed there to 1.18 trillion won ($1.03bn), up from 1.038 trillion won ($924m) in 2019.

The United States, under former President Donald Trump, had called on South Korea to raise its contributions, accusing it of “free-riding” and demanding that it pay as much as $5bn a year.

The dispute resulted in a deadlock, leaving the US troops stationed in South Korea without a funding scheme for 2020 and triggering fears the row could undermine the two allies’ ability to counter potential security threats from North Korea.

“The agreement resolved the longest-ever vacuum that had lasted about a year and three months,” South Korea’s chief negotiator, Jeong Eun-bo, told a televised briefing.

“It provided a chance to reaffirm the importance of the alliance and the need for stable stationing of US Forces Korea.”

The six-year Special Measures Agreement with the US will boost South Korea’s annual contribution to the bill for 2022 to 2025 in line with its annual defence budget increase, which was 5.4 percent this year, the South Korean foreign ministry said in a statement.

The pact, which came after drawn-out negotiations, replaces an arrangement that expired at the end of 2019.

Both sides agreed to freeze South Korea’s contribution for 2020 at the 2019 level, the ministry said.

On the new link between the contribution to the cost of maintaining US forces and the defence budget, the ministry said the increase in the defence budget was a “reasonable, clearly verifiable standard” that reflected financial and security capabilities.

The ministry said it would take swift administrative steps and send the agreement to the parliament for approval.

About 28,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea to help defend it against North Korea under a treaty of mutual defence signed after the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

The agreement provided the basis for the stationing of US forces in South Korea, which began paying towards their costs in the early 1990s after rebuilding its war-devastated economy.

With negotiations making little headway after the last pact expired in 2019, about half of some 9,000 South Koreans working for the US military were placed on unpaid leave, prompting the two sides to scramble for a stopgap deal to bring them back to work.

Jeong said the accord stipulated that in future, workers can receive their existing salaries in the absence of a new deal.

The workers’ union welcomed the agreement, saying it would help ensure stable work conditions. Without it, thousands more workers would have been forced to take unpaid leave next month, the union said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies