America and South Korea Must Negotiate a Fair Extension of the SMA

America and South Korea Must Negotiate a Fair Extension of the SMA

Thomas Byrne, Walter L. Sharp

Security, Asia

“It is in the interest of the U.S. and South Korea to negotiate a fair extension of the SMA that does not raise accusations among the Korean population that the U.S. is a mercenary force in their country while also addressing concerns of the U.S. that its allies shoulder as much of their own defense burden as possible.”

Contentious talks to renew the U.S.-South Korea military cost-sharing agreement threatens to strain an over six-decade alliance, one that advances key American interests and serves as the cornerstone of peace and security in one of the world’s most important regions. 

This comes at a critical time with North Korea ramping up its conventional weapons threats to South Korea and Japan. Talks this week in Seoul ended prematurely when the U.S. cut short negotiations arguing that the South Koreas “were not responsive to our request for fair and equitable burden-sharing,” while the South cited “quite a big difference in principle.”

Since 1991 the U.S. and South Korea have negotiated multiyear Special Measures Agreements (SMA) that govern how costs are shared for the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in Korea. When the previous agreement expired at the end of 2018, talks proved so difficult that a makeshift one-year agreement was all that could be managed. Nonetheless, South Korea agreed to raise its contribution 8.2% to KRW 1.04 trillion (almost $900 million), which covers about 50% of local basing costs, a bottom-line target for the U.S. last year.

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris has stated that “Korea, like other allies, can and should do more.”  In one regard Ambassador Harris is right: the cost of deterring North Korea’s relentless weapons build-up continually increases the cost of common defense.

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