Analysis, Military

Signals on U.S.-South Korea Cost Sharing Negotiations Outpace Those of Inter-Korean Talks

According to Predata analytics, Korean internet users showed relative indifference toward the high level inter-Korean exchanges this week. Instead, they appeared to care more about upcoming talks with the Americans. On March 4, the Korean-language Wikipedia page for Republic of Korea (ROK)-U.S. Combined Forces Command received more attention than on any other single day in its history and was the key driver of Predata’s signal for monitoring South Korean defense issues.

That interest could be related to anticipation of U.S.-ROK military exercises in April, but the unprecedented spike in the signal correlates most closely with the opening of the cost-sharing (Special Measures Agreement or SMA) talks in Hawai’i on March 7. SMA negotiations are about sharing the costs for the stationing of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula. The current five-year agreement, in which South Korea provides approximately $830 million per year (or about half of the costs of the U.S. presence), expires at the end of 2018.

SMA negotiations are always contentious between allies, even in the best of times, because they are about money. President Trump has made clear that he wants allies to pay more of their fair share for U.S. force presence in their countries. The South Korean government, while open to negotiation, always prefers to pay less.

We should not underestimate how much this can be a hot-button issue in the alliance. At a time when there are potential challenges with coordinating policy on North Korea, as well as potential friction over trade issues, an argument over SMA, laced with claims of “ungrateful ally” on both sides, could create bad optics for the alliance.

As hard as SMA negotiations are, they usually end up reaching a successful conclusion. We have seen nine such agreements and expect a tenth one to be concluded in due course. But all sides would be well-served to know that public attention to this issue, despite other newsbreaking events around the peninsula these days, is focused and significant.