Trans-Pacific View | Diplomacy | East Asia

The US and South Korea Need a Stopgap SMA

The ongoing nature of the coronavirus crisis merits a rethink to both countries’ approaches to the SMA talks.

Troy Stangarone
The US and South Korea Need a Stopgap SMA
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Frank L. Andrews

With the world in the middle of a global pandemic and an economic crisis, the United States and South Korea should set aside their disagreements on burden sharing in the talks for a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) and consider a stopgap agreement.

The world has changed significantly since the burden sharing talks began last year. Travel is coming to a halt and countries are increasingly isolating their populations in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19. The ongoing nature of the crisis and its impact on economic life and national security merits a rethink to both countries’ approaches to the SMA talks.

However, in the most recently concluded round of talks the United States continued to seek a reported $4 billion annually from South Korea. While this is down from Washington’s initial ask of $5 billion, it remains a significant increase over the most recent one year agreement, which set Seoul’s contribution at a little over $900 million, itself an 8.2 percent increase over the prior five year agreement. With South Korea reportedly only willing to accept a 10 percent increase, that still leaves a significant gap between the two sides.

While South Koreans overwhelmingly support the alliance with the United States, polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs indicates that they are against a significant increase in Seoul’s contribution to the alliance. It is difficult to imagine that the Moon administration could agree to a roughly 300 percent increase with National Assembly elections set for April 15 and public opinion against the current U.S. request.

However, the failure to reach an agreement soon could be more damaging to the alliance than it would be in normal times.

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U.S. negotiators are threatening to furlough 4,500 South Koreans unless Seoul agrees to a significant increase in the SMA talks by April 1. While down from an initial 9,000 furlough notices sent out earlier this year, placing 4,500 South Koreans on unpaid leave during a global crisis can only damage the alliance. It might also make it increasingly difficult for the South Korean government to conclude a new SMA on terms amenable to the Trump administration.

To address these concerns South Korean negotiators had hoped to secure a separate agreement on personnel that would have prevented the furloughs. Washington, however, rejected the proposal, ostensibly because it would have taken away much of the United States’ leverage in the talks.

With much of the world closing schools, sporting events, and transport between countries, how the United States handles this issue will also signal to North Korea the current state of the alliance. While 4,500 employees might seem insignificant, if the United States is willing to reduce its own readiness during a crisis to merely extract a higher contribution from South Korea it would not be unreasonable for North Korea to conclude that the alliance is not as close as Seoul and Washington might want to portray.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is no need to create additional unemployment, even if perhaps temporary, in South Korea under the current circumstances. Instead, this can be an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity between the two allies.

Rather than continue to allow the negotiations to drag out and furlough South Koreans in the middle of a pandemic and its consequent economic crisis, the United States and South Korea could agree to a short-term stopgap measure. This would allow the United States to maintain leverage in reaching a longer-term SMA, but also acknowledge the realities of the immediate crisis both allies face.

An initial agreement would call for the South Korean government to continue to fund USFK at its current rate through the end of June in the hopes that the pandemic would be under control by that point. The United States and South Korea would then also agree to a series of metrics to determine when the crisis had ended, allowing them to engage in additional short-term extensions should a permanent agreement still be elusive and the coronavirus remain uncontained.

If the crisis has abated by the end of June and no long-term agreement has been reach in the interim, the United States would still have the option to furlough South Korean personnel.

This is not an ideal solution. The alliance needs stability for the local hires and long-term construction funded by the South Korean government. But then laying off 4,500 South Koreans as leverage during a crisis is far from ideal either. Especially at a time when the United States and South Korea are beginning medical cooperation to deal with the outbreak of COVID-19 and save lives in the United States.

Whether the United States chooses to furlough South Koreans over a financial dispute during a global pandemic and economic crisis will speak significantly to how the Trump administration views South Korea and the alliance. Helping those individuals during this crisis would not undermine long-term U.S. objectives in securing an increase in South Korea’s contribution to the alliance and could help to strengthen the alliance in the long run.