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EDStep toward better alliance

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Korea, US agree on defense cost sharing

Seoul and Washington have reached an agreement on how to share the costs of the upkeep of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). It is fortunate that both countries have narrowed their differences and concluded the long-drawn-out negotiations on the issue.

On Monday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Department of State announced the deal that will set Korea's share of the costs for the stationing of 28,500 U.S. troops here. However they stopped short of specifying how much Seoul will pay. The two sides are expected to announce the details of the deal soon after both governments conduct internal reviews on it.

According to defense sources, the agreement would call for Seoul to increase its share by about 13 percent, something the two allies tentatively agreed to in 2020, which required Korea to pay about $1 billion (1.17 trillion won). But then U.S. President Trump rejected the deal and demanded a fivefold increase. In a word, Trump's America-centric and self-serving attitude disrupted the negotiations.

But the inauguration of President Joe Biden has made it possible for Seoul and Washington to reach a breakthrough in the talks. Biden stands in stark contrast to Trump who called South Korea a "free loader" and put money before the alliance. He has vowed not to extort the U.S. ally, and instead has committed to strengthen the U.S.' alliance with Korea, along with other countries.

The latest deal is no doubt mutually beneficial. Seoul has managed to avoid a much greater burden, and Washington is able to restore its alliance. South Korea has also reportedly succeeded in snatching a multi-year agreement ― probably for five years ― instead of holding negotiations every year as Trump had preferred.

Yet, it is still doubtful whether the agreement is fair and transparent. Critics question if Korea has struck the deal on an equal footing. They argue that the country will still have to pay a higher burden for the U.S. military presence, citing media reports that Seoul has offered to purchase U.S. military equipment. They also call for a change in calculating the actual defense costs. The U.S. side should improve transparency about how Korea's payment is used.

Most of all, the cost-sharing agreement must serve as a first step toward rebuilding the Korea-U.S. alliance. The Biden administration should not push Seoul too hard to join its alliance in the Indo-Pacific region to check the rise of China. Concerns are growing that South Korea might be caught in the rivalry between the U.S., which is Korea's traditional ally, and China, its largest trading partner. Thus, Seoul and Washington should step up cooperation to develop their alliance into a broader partnership to promote their mutual interest and co-prosperity.


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