US demands US$5 bil from S. Korea, walks out of defence talks

South Korea’s chief negotiator Jeong Eun-bo speaks after meeting US counterpart James DeHart in Seoul. (AP pic)

SEOUL: The United States walked out of talks on hiking South Korea’s contribution for American troops on its soil, Seoul said Tuesday, as Washington accused its ally of rebuffing a “fair and equitable” agreement.

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly demanded the South pay more towards the costs of the 28,500 troops Washington stations in the South to defend it against the nuclear-armed North.

Seoul officials say Washington is seeking US$5 billion from its treaty partner next year — a five-fold increase — raising concerns the issue will undermine their alliance.

The latest round of talks broke down in Seoul on Tuesday “because the US side walked out first”, said Jeong Eun-bo, the South’s chief negotiator.

His US counterpart James DeHart said Washington had “cut short” the meeting to give Seoul “some time to reconsider”.

“Unfortunately, the proposals that were put forward by the Korean team were not responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden-sharing,” DeHart told reporters.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on a visit to Seoul last week that South Korea was “a wealthy country and could and should pay more to offset the cost of defence”.

The Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that governs cost-sharing for American troops in South Korea has been in place since 1991, and in February Seoul agreed to an 8% contribution increase for this year, to around US$890 million.

The head of the South’s parliamentary intelligence committee Lee Hye-hoon said in a radio interview that US ambassador Harry Harris had “repeated the demand to pay US$5 billion for defence cost-sharing about 20 times” at a meeting earlier this month.

Seoul’s foreign ministry said in a statement it would work to keep contributions to a “reasonable” level and “within the range that is mutually acceptable”.

The breakdown comes a day after Seoul and Washington said they would delay annual joint aerial exercises slated for this month in an act of “goodwill” towards North Korea after months of deadlocked nuclear talks with Pyongyang.