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US-Korea Alliance Diplomacy in the Shadow of COVID-19

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US-Korea Alliance Diplomacy in the Shadow of COVID-19

COVID-19 has disrupted or complicated already contentious cost-sharing talks in more ways than one. 

US-Korea Alliance Diplomacy in the Shadow of COVID-19

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark A. Milley participate in a Security Consultative Meeting with Minister of National Defense of South Korea Jeong Kyeong-doo in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 15, 2019.

Credit: DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro

COVID-19 is a truly transnational threat presenting severe problems for the global community. It opportunistically exploits widely varying levels of national political will and public trust, not to mention the disparities and alarming inadequacies within the public health infrastructure of the developing and developed world alike. There is nothing like a pandemic to rip away the veil and reveal enormous problems laying just beneath the surface.

The now global pandemic exacerbates pre-existing issues, whether the ongoing political and propaganda war between the United States and China or, on a less pronounced level, the significant cost-sharing disagreement between Washington and Seoul. Despite the enormous disruption and growing concern caused by COVID-19, the allies have made little progress toward a negotiated settlement of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA). The Trump administration appears perfectly willing to allow the long simmering disagreement to spill over into an even more significant break.

As I previously noted in The Diplomat, after six rounds of talks, the allies failed to meet the December 31, 2019 deadline for a new SMA. Washington then upped the ante in January when U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) sent a 60-day notice to about 9,000 of its Korean employees, notifying them of a pending unpaid, administrative furlough starting on April 1 absent an agreement, due to dwindling operational budget.

On March 17 in Los Angeles, South Korea’s chief negotiator, Jeong Eun-bo, and his U.S. counterpart, James DeHart, held their seventh and latest round of inconclusive talks. Despite rhetoric about the value of the alliance, both sides walked away clearly at loggerheads. On March 25, USFK began notifying 4,500-5,000 South Korean employees they would be furloughed early next month. This is down from the above cited 9,000 number, but why? Are there funds actually available, contrary to earlier USFK pronouncements, to continue paying the wages of Korean employees? Was the 9,000 number a bluff and is lowering it by half seen by the U.S. officials as a reasonable compromise?

Rather than find a short-term solution, Trump administration officials have instead stubbornly stuck to their guns. COVID-19 has disrupted or complicated the process in more ways than one.

Due to coronavirus concerns, the two sides have to avoid face-to-face talks and instead must hold consultations over the phone and email or through embassy staff. Also, in its efforts to prevent a second surge in infections, Seoul has announced it will now test all arrivals from the United States who show symptoms of the coronavirus and ask those without symptoms to self-quarantine for two weeks. Those who break self-isolation rules risk deportation. Conceivably a deal could be reached through virtual communication, but it is certainly much more difficult absent the nuance and relationship-building that comes through in-person meetings.

Despite the fact that USFK Commander General Robert Abrams declared a public health emergency on Wednesday as part of the effort to contain COVID-19, U.S. officials have adamantly opposed a stopgap deal to prevent a furlough that could potentially undermine those same efforts. To be fair, the Department of Defense has noted that it will continue to fund the salaries of certain Korean employees who provide health and safety services. Nevertheless, the March 25 furlough notice sent by the U.S. Department of the Army noted that the other 4,500-5,000 employees “will not be permitted to serve as an unpaid volunteer, must remain away from their workplace, and are prohibited from performing any work-related duties.”

Seoul has proposed concluding a separate short-term agreement that would at least address the wage issue, but Trump administration officials rejected the proposal, saying it would further delay a comprehensive SMA deal. Meanwhile, the South Korean government and National Security Council (NCS) are reviewing options, such as special loans, to help those affected by the pending furlough.

Even if such workers are not directly involved in health and safety services, though, the question remains: How does it help USFK or the alliance to furlough 4,500-5,000 workers? Does it help General Abrams, not to mention the thousands of U.S personnel and their family members residing in South Korea, to suddenly furlough thousands of employees during what the USFK itself calls a public health emergency? The answer, for those actually wondering, is no. It does not help. Yet this is just one small element of a much bigger problem. There is still time to find a stopgap plan to prevent the disruption and negative optics of a furlough during a public health emergency. Hopefully, both sides can find it.

The larger problem, COVID-19 aside (admittedly an awkward phrase to write while we are still in the early stages of the pandemic), is the Trump administration’s position in the cost-sharing talks. In my earlier piece for The Diplomat, I noted there were indications the Trump administration was lowering its original $5 billion demand, a 400 percent increase of South Korea’s $924 million contribution to last year’s SMA. I opined that even were the administration to reduce the ask to $4 billion, it would still constitute a 300 percent increase of Seoul’s contributions. The result would be South Korea not only covering the entire $3 billion in direct basing costs of U.S. forces but also paying a 33 percent premium.

It turns out the administration did in fact lower its demand to $4 billion, while also rejecting Seoul’s revised proposal to increase its payment by more than 10 percent. Following the failed seventh round of talks, a State Department spokesperson then had the audacity to remark: “A mutually acceptable agreement will require greater focus and flexibility from the ROK side to reach a fair and equitable burden sharing that accurately reflects that value… The gap remains large.” To the casual observer, Washington’s 20 percent reduction in its asking price from $5 billion to $4 billion might give the appearance of flexibility.. Nevertheless, this elides a key question: Where did the original $5 billion demand originate?

It is a question that U.S. lawmakers themselves are asking. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Elliot Engel (D-NY) demanded to know as much in a December 2019 letter to the Trump administration. While acknowledging that allies and partners “should fairly contribute to the cost of our presence overseas,” they cautioned the “demands for a massive increase in South Korean annual contributions serves as a needless wedge between us and allies.” In addition to asking for information on the total annual cost of maintaining U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula, they inquired, what was “the basis for the requested increase from $924 million per year to roughly $5 billion per year?”

Although Democrats have been most outspoken regarding their concerns about the nature of the administration’s demands, and the manner by which they communicate them, quite a few Republicans share the sentiment. Indeed, Smith and Engel’s same concerns and requests made their way into the 2020 fiscal year NDAA and have motivated bipartisan House and Senate efforts to reassure Asian allies and maintain the existing U.S. troop levels at 28,500.

That said, the answer to the question about the basis for the Trump’s demand is really quite straightforward. It is also commonly understood by most informed observers as well as among insiders in Washington, D.C. and USFK. It was a flippant and arbitrary number designed to force Seoul to pay a tax for the privilege of having U.S. forces stationed on their sovereign territory. Trump does not value the alliance so he does not want to pay for it, plain and simple. The consequence is that U.S. officials down the line are forced to reverse engineer some sort of deal based on an entirely unrealistic, unreasonable, and, indeed, arbitrary number. And in the process, they accuse their South Korean counterparts of lacking flexibility or an appreciation for the U.S. commitment to the alliance.

Now thousands of USFK’s Korean employees are on the verge of being out of work on an indefinite furlough amid a public health crisis and the allies, barring a stopgap one-year deal, are closer to greater alliance friction at a time when cooperation is paramount.