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South Korea, U.S. reinforce alliance with cost-sharing pact

Felix Kim

A new cost-sharing agreement between South Korea and the United States will strengthen the defense alliance to counter increasingly complex threats in the Indo-Pacific region, experts and government officials agree.

“Washington and Seoul reached agreement on defense sharing for the next six years, including the past year,” Sheen Seong-ho, defense analyst and professor of international studies at Seoul National University, told FORUM. “This stabilized the fundamental basis of the alliance.”

The burden-sharing ratio between the allies will be adjusted as the size of the Republic of Korea (ROK) defense budget changes, he added, characterizing the agreement as “both practical and logical.” Although details have not been released, officials involved said the pact represents a meaningful increase in contributions from South Korea to help pay for U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula.

Sheen’s words echoed statements by ROK Minister of Defense Suh Wook following his March 18, 2021, meetings with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. “The ROK-U.S. alliance will grow a step further based on a stronger strategic communication and cooperation system between them,” Suh said, according to the ROK Ministry of National Defense. (Pictured: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Republic of Korea Minister of Defense Suh Wook discussed threats posed by the People’s Republic of China and North Korea during their March 2021 meeting in Seoul.)

About 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea. In 2019, the allies struck a deal that required South Korea to pay about U.S. $924 million for the U.S. presence. The new deal is expected to increase that annual contribution.

With that deal being finalized, the allies in the coming months will turn their attention to a range of defense issues. Those include the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) to the ROK from U.S. Forces Korea (USFK); defense and deterrence of threats posed by North Korea; defense of Indo-Pacific waterways; and trilateral defense cooperation involving Japan, South Korea and the U.S., Sheen said.

OPCON transfer has been progressing since early 2006, he said, but momentum has intensified with USFK’s relocation from its Yongsan Garrison base in Seoul to Camp Humphreys, about 65 kilometers south of the capital city. The transfer illustrates that the ROK military is taking on greater responsibility for the nation’s defense, he added.

Deterring and defending against conventional and nuclear threats posed by North Korea requires continued military strength and readiness, Sheen said. Achieving Suh’s stated goal of “permanent peace” on the peninsula, however, also will require engagement with Pyongyang “handled in very close coordination between the two ally partners,” Sheen said.

U.S. officials emphasized that their commitment to defending South Korea is enduring. “The United States’ security commitment to the Republic of Korea is unshakable, consistent with the Mutual Defense Treaty, and U.S. forces in Korea are specifically postured to fight tonight if needed,” said Army Lt. Col. Martin Meiners, a Pentagon spokesman, according to The Washington Post newspaper.

Trilateral defense cooperation with Japan will be important going forward, particularly in missile defense, Sheen said. He characterized USFK’s presence on the peninsula as “maybe the most important pillar of Indo-Pacific stability.” In a region with no shortage of potential hot spots for conflict, particularly in the East and South China seas, stability on the Korean Peninsula is crucial to peace in the broader region, he said.

With its economy heavily dependent on trade and as the world’s second-largest shipbuilding country, South Korea strongly supports freedom of navigation, he said. “Maintaining freedom of navigation and rule of law is critical for South Korea, not only for military security but also economic security,” he said.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.



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