South Korean president Park Geun-hye hopes to impress Barack Obama when he visits Seoul next month to discuss the status of the US-ROK alliance. She wants South Korea’s national assembly to endorse, before his arrival, an agreement signed earlier this year between South Korea and the United States on how much South Korea will cough up to keep U.S. troops in South Korea. The agreement is called the 9th Special Measures Agreement (SMA) (it’s the 9th time the agreement has been renegotiated since it was first signed in 1991), and it would increase South Korea’s annual payments by 6%, making it $850 million this year.
But Park may face speed bumps as questions surface about what’s hidden behind the numbers in the agreement. During the year-long negotiation for the 9th SMA, it was discovered that for years, the USFK has been quietly diverting South Korea’s contributions specifically earmarked for “military construction” to foot the cost of base relocation – its massive project of consolidating U.S. bases in and around Seoul and along the DMZ to an expanded Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek and other bases south of Seoul. (On the question of the legality of this practice, see – USFK Hoarding $1.5 Billion in South Korean Taxpayer Money.)
When South Korean civic groups raised the issue, the government tried to muffle public outcry by promising that after U.S. base relocation is completed in 2016, “military construction” expenses will decrease and South Korea wouldn’t have to pay as much in the future to upkeep U.S. forces.
Never mind that U.S. base relocation has already been delayed multiple times and there is no reason to believe it would not be delayed again beyond 2016. What the South Korean public finds more egregious is that after inking the agreement, the government did a complete 180. It now parrots the U.S. position that even after 2016, i.e. after base relocation is complete, the USFK will continue to ring up a bill for military construction. Construction projects on bases not involved in relocation – such as Osan, Daegu, and Kunsan – they say, are currently on hold to give priority to the base relocation project. These projects will need to begin/resume after 2016 and will cost money, they argue.
Solidarity for Peace and Reunification in Korea (SPARK) – a civic group that has been closely monitoring the negotiations from the beginning – says, however, that this is double-talk. There is a separate line item called “Facilities maintenance” in the “Logistics support” section of the USFK budget, says SPARK. That amount, according to SPARK, is specifically dedicated to facilities maintenance and improvements on bases not involved in base realignment. Close to $28 million of South Korea’s annual contribution goes to this specific line item each year and has been used all along for upkeep and improvements of various non-combat facilities, such as barracks, cafeterias, parking lots, and fitness centers on these bases. So it’s disingenuous to imply that other construction projects have been delayed as a result of base relocation.
The USFK, in other words, has been spending South Korean taxpayer money for facilities maintenance and construction on its bases all a long while at the same time storing some away to offset the cost of base relocation. Now it’s saying even after base relocation is complete, it still wants South Koreans to continue to outlay the same amount.
That’s not all. According to the Segye Ilbo, a clause regarding “in-kind” support for military construction is missing in the 9th SMA. The ability to pay for USFK military construction in non-monetary contributions was a point of prickly contention between the United States and South Korea during the negotiations for the 8th SMA in 2008, according to a cable made public by Wikileaks. To prevent misappropriation of funds and accumulation of interest, South Korea had suggested paying for military construction through material support, while the United States demanded cash. As a compromise, the two sides had agreed on phasing in the in-kind payments – 30% in-kind in 2009, 60% in 2010, and 88% from 2011 on – with an “off-ramp” clause for the United States to opt out of the in-kind agreement and revert back to a cash-based construction program if it found the in-kind program troublesome.
This clause, however, is nowhere to be found in the text of the new SMA, and this has set off speculations that the Park administration buckled under U.S. demands for an all cash payment. Opposition parties are calling for a renegotiation and vowing to reject the current version of the agreement.
The South Korean public, already weighed down by stagnant wages and growing youth unemployment, has the added burden of hosting U.S. troops, increasingly more onerous since chronic economic depression in the United States has forced the Pentagon to tighten its own purse strings. South Koreans have long begrudged U.S. troops for overstaying its welcome. President Obama may yet get more cash for his troops, but only in exchange for growing anti-U.S. discontent that could eventually become the alliance’s downfall.