Biden has settled one of Trump’s feuds with a close US ally, but there are still thornier issues to deal with

south korea military exercise
South Korean marines in blue headbands and US Marines take position during a joint amphibious landing exercise in Pohang, South Korea, March 12, 2016.

  • By signing a new military cost-sharing agreement with South Korea, the Biden administration has settled a fight picked by the Trump administration.
  • But the US-South Korea relationship still faces long-term bilateral defense issues and shifting US priorities in the region.
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The completion of a long-term, military cost-sharing deal resolves a point of tension between the United States and South Korea, signaling a renewed US emphasis on regional allies.

But it still leaves thornier bilateral defense issues and shifting US priorities in the region, which will change the US-South Korea defense relationship over the next 10 years.

On March 8, US and South Korean negotiators reached an agreement in principle on the renewal of their military cost-sharing Special Measures Agreement (SMA) after three successive days of talks in Washington, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced March 8.

The US State Department said on March 7 that the agreement would extend through 2025 and include a “meaningful increase” in South Korea’s share of the expenses to support US troop deployments in the country.

  • Although the full details have not been released, earlier leaks indicated that as part of an effort to smooth over ties with South Korea, the Biden administration was willing to accept a 13% increase in South Korean contributions over the previous $925.3 million agreement. If confirmed, this is far short of the administration of former US President Donald Trump’s reported hardline push for a fivefold increase to $5 billion per year.
  • As part of a global push to increase the military burden-sharing of allies, Trump had pressured South Korea to substantially expand its contributions. A one-year 2018-2019 agreement expired and gave way to over a year of fruitless talks that saw South Korean personnel furloughed for three months from April before Seoul offered $200 million in stopgap funding.
  • On February 17, a US-Japan cost-sharing agreement was reached on their deal expiring in March that extended the current agreement to April 2022. The deal didn’t change the $1.9 billion in annual Japanese contributions to allow time for negotiations on a longer pact. The Trump administration had reportedly been pushing for an annual payment of $8 billion.
us korea joint training
A South Korean K1 tank fires during a joint military exercise with the US in Pohang, South Korea, July 6, 2016.

Inking this cost-sharing deal, however, was relatively easy compared with ongoing thornier discussions on issues, such as South Korea’s desire to regain wartime control of its armed forces from the United States.

With around one year before South Korea’s next presidential election, such talks will be highly politicized given the internal divisions in South Korea between progressives favoring greater military independence and conservatives focused on continuity in the US alliance.

  • Before the March 2022 presidential election, the administration of President Moon Jae-in aims to regain Operational Control Authority (OPCON) from the United States, which would allow the South Korean government to control its military during wartime in contrast to the current arrangement in which such forces would be led by a US general. The progressive arm of South Korean politics sees this as necessary to allow greater latitude in dealing with North Korea.
  • The United States, however, may hesitate to make sweeping changes in OPCON given the continued North Korean threat amid the stagnation in the US-North Korea outreach on denuclearization – a factor that former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said in 2018 could allow for a drawdown during progress with Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. army soldiers take part in a U.S.-South Korea joint river-crossing exercise near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Yeoncheon, South Korea, April 8, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo
US soldiers take part in a US-South Korea joint river-crossing exercise near the demilitarized zone in Yeoncheon, South Korea, April 8, 2016.

The precise nature of the US-South Korea defense relationship is still in flux.

While the United States will continue to focus on South Korea as a key regional partner, it may shift away from massive troop deployments on the Korean Peninsula in favor of flexible and mobile troop deployments with greater standoff distance from the Asian mainland, with a particular focus on Japan.

  • With countering China’s regional rise firmly established as the key US objective in the Indo-Pacific, Japan offers greater latitude for the US military to maneuver without the liabilities of South Korean troop deployments, which are costly and leave US personnel in the line of fire in the event of a deterioration in North Korean relations.
  • On March 8, Biden’s nominee for undersecretary of defense for policy, Colin Kahl, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US troop numbers in South Korea were not fixed and pointed to Biden’s pledge to carry out a global posture review to realign military deployments with the global threat environment.
  • On March 5, US leaks indicated long-term plans to station precision-strike missiles along the so-called “first island chain,” which geographically runs from Japan through Taiwan to the Philippines, as part of the $27.4 billion Pacific Deterrence Initiative military fund that aims to counter Chinese regional clout.
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