South Korea and the United States have agreed on a new arrangement for sharing the cost of the US troops stationed on the Korean peninsula, easing an irritant in ties between the two allies as they kicked off their annual joint military exercises.
In a statement on Monday, the South Korean foreign ministry said the two sides had reached an agreement in principle after three days of face-to-face talks in Washington, DC, but did not specify the agreed amount.
The proposed six-year “Special Measures Agreement” will replace the previous arrangement that expired at the end of 2019. It must still be approved by the South Korean legislature.
“By quickly sealing the deal, the government will address the absence of an agreement, which continued for more than a year, and contribute to strengthening the South Korea-US alliance, the linchpin of peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia,” the South Korean foreign ministry said.
A spokeswoman for the US Department of State told the Reuters news agency that the deal included a “negotiated meaningful increase in host nation support contributions,” but gave no further details.
The US has about 28,000 troops in South Korea to help deter potential aggression from North Korea. But the cost for South Korea having a US military presence was a thorny issue in bilateral relations under former President Donald Trump’s administration, which often asked its Asian ally to drastically increase its share.
In 2019, the allies struck a deal that required South Korea to pay about $924m for the US troops’ presence, an increase from $830m in the previous year. But negotiations for a new cost-sharing plan broke down over a US demand that Seoul pay five times what it had previously paid.
After the last pact expired, some 4,000 South Koreans working for the US military were placed on unpaid leave, prompting the two countries to scramble for a temporary agreement to let them return to work.
In a statement, the Department of State said the deal reflected US President Joe Biden’s “commitment to reinvigorating and modernising our democratic alliances around the world to advance our shared security and prosperity”.
South Korea began paying for the US troop presence in the early 1990s, after rebuilding its war-devastated economy. The two countries signed a treaty of mutual defence at the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War, which provided the basis for the stationing of US forces in South Korea.
Many conservatives in the East Asian country worried that Trump might use failed cost-sharing negotiations as an excuse to withdraw some US troops from South Korea as a bargaining chip in now-stalled nuclear talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The US and South Korea had also scaled back or halted some of their military exercises in recent years to support nuclear diplomacy, which eventually fell apart due to disputes over US-led sanctions on North Korea.
On Monday, South Korea’s and the US army kicked off annual military drills that are scheduled to last for nine days.
South Korea’s military said the drills are command-post exercises and computerised simulation and do not involve field training. It said the allies considered factors like the status of COVID-19 and diplomatic efforts to resume the nuclear talks with North Korea when it decided to hold the drills.