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U.S. And South Korea Negotiate Cost-Sharing Deal Of U.S. Military Presence


The U.S. and South Korea are trying to reach a deal on sharing the cost of the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Time is running out. If no deal is reached, thousands of Korean employees of the U.S. military will soon be put on unpaid leave. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, South Korea is a test case for the Trump administration's policy of getting allies to pay more.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: U.S. forces in South Korea, or USFK, have always employed local staff over the seven decades they've been here. For the first time, those staff have been given a 30-day notice, meaning that if no deal is reached by the end of March, they'll be furloughed on April 1.

Son Gi-O, secretary general of the USFK Korean Employees Union, representing some 9000 Korean workers, says those employees are worried about losing their livelihoods.

SON GI-O: (Through interpreter) The USFK always says our motto is, we go together. We consider each other family.

KUHN: He says he knows that the U.S. side is concerned, too.

SON: (Through interpreter) I think the USFK is desperately trying to communicate how difficult it will be for them to accomplish their mission here.

KUHN: The U.S. has some 28,500 troops in South Korea. USFK commander General Robert Abrams said in a statement last month that the loss of the Korean employees would hurt military readiness. USFK spokesman Colonel Lee Peters says U.S. bases will still operate but perhaps not as well as usual.

LEE PETERS: It could be reduced hours, reduced personnel, longer wait times, et cetera.

KUHN: At Camp Humphreys, the largest U.S. military base outside the continental U.S., garrison commander Colonel Michael Tremblay recently presided over a town hall. He said the Pentagon will continue to fund Korean employees whose work affects the base's residents' life, health and safety.

MICHAEL TREMBLAY: The hospital, law enforcement, the commissary, medical facilities, first aid responders and post office service.

KUHN: Tremblay told residents that USFK may bring in U.S. troops from outside the country to fill in for furloughed Korean employees.

DAVID MAXWELL: It's going to cause a major diversion of U.S. military manpower to fill the roles that are performed by the Korean labor force.

KUHN: That's David Maxwell, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. He says that the U.S.'s initial demand of $5 billion, a 500% increase over last year's contribution, has unnecessarily antagonized an ally. He says that Seoul's current contribution of nearly a billion dollars is already saving U.S. taxpayers a lot of money.

MAXWELL: It's actually cheaper to have our forces stationed overseas when the burden is shared with our allies.

KUHN: The U.S. says it's lowered its initial demand, but Maxwell says the underlying question remains.

MAXWELL: What is more important to the United States? Is it receiving more money from South Korea, or is it protecting U.S. national interests, which are key in this strategic geopolitical location of Northeast Asia?

KUHN: South Korean legislators say they will veto any unfair cost-sharing deal. Song Young-gil, a ruling party lawmaker, says the U.S. demands have damaged the alliance.

SONG YOUNG-GIL: (Through interpreter) That amount of money will prompt most South Koreans to say, we would rather defend our country independently, without the U.S.

KUHN: He believes that even U.S. negotiators must be frustrated with the White House's demands.

SONG: (Through interpreter) They lack the will or the logic to push it through, and they themselves don't seem to believe the demands can be met. They see themselves as bluffing.

KUHN: Last year, he notes, the U.S. asked for a 50% increase but got only 8.2%. Song says that this year, they should expect to get even less.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.