April 15, 2020

Leading National Security Democrats Raise Alarm over Trump Admin’s Dispute with South Korea Over Cost-Sharing Deal

WASHINGTON —  Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jack Reed (D-R.I.), House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) today raised their growing concerns with the Trump Administration’s failure to reach a new burden-sharing deal with South Korea.

In a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the members urged the Administration to reconsider its current position in the negotiations for a new burden-sharing agreement known as the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which funds U.S. military presence stationed in the Korean peninsula.  The Senators’ letter follows reports that the United States government recently rejected a significant offer by the Republic of Korea to increase their share of the financial burden of maintaining the current level of American military troops stationed in South Korea. 

“We are deeply concerned that if we are unable to reach a fair and mutually acceptable agreement on a new SMA soon, then the continued friction will erode the proper functioning of the alliance itself,” wrote the Members, specifically citing North Korea’s continued progress in its nuclear program and recent advancements to its ballistic missile capabilities. “This could include readiness challenges and place the lives of United States service members, as well as our security interests, at increased risk. The only winners in that scenario are our adversaries. These are serious concerns that we expect you share.”

With the most recent SMA expiring over four months ago, thousands of South Korean civilians working for the U.S. military have already been furloughed due to the stand-off in negotiations for a new SMA for 2020. The government of South Korea previously announced its disposition to make greater contributions to its own defense and to the alliance to protect itself from North Korea. However, with the negotiations currently suspended until at least after the April 15th elections in the Republic of Korea, the ongoing stalemate in negotiations threatens to jeopardize the U.S.-ROK relationship and our nation’s presence in the Indo-Pacific.

A copy of the letter can be found HERE and below.

Dear Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Esper:

We write today to express our disappointment that the Administration has failed to conclude negotiations over a Special Measures Agreement (SMA) between the United States and the Republic of Korea over four months after the expiration of the prior agreement. We are concerned about the implications for U.S. Forces Korea and for the United States’ interests in the Indo-Pacific.

It is our understanding that the Republic of Korea recently made a significant offer to the United States to resolve the impasse in negotiations and conclude an agreement. However, it appears that the White House rejected the offer as well as a proposal to mitigate the impact of lapsed funding. Unfortunately, we understand negotiations are currently suspended until at least after the April 15th elections in the Republic of Korea.

We know that you appreciate the critical importance of the U.S.-Korea alliance.  It is an alliance forged in the blood of shared sacrifice, and a healthy, strong, and robust alliance with the Republic of Korea is the linchpin for of U.S. national security interests in the Indo-Pacific. The Korean Peninsula is strategically vital to Northeast Asia and broader regional security and stability, including our China strategy in this “new era of strategic competition.” Moreover, the emergence of the Republic of Korea as democracy and economic powerhouse in Asia is one of the great success stories of the past seventy years, and one for which the United States deserves some credit for our steadfast friendship and support of our Korean allies.  It is for good reason that for over 70 years our alliance commitment has been exemplified by the words “katchi kapshida” – “we go together”.

North Korea continues to move forward with its nuclear program and has made recent advancements to its ballistic missile capabilities that complicate missile defenses.North Korea’s WMD and conventional military capabilities pose a significant threat to the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the United States. Accordingly, the United States maintains a significant posture on the Korean Peninsula and in East Asia to assure our allies and partners, deter the threat posed by North Korea, and to achieve United States objectives if deterrence fails.

We agree in principle that the Republic of Korea can and should take on additional responsibilities and meet an increased share of the burden of maintaining a robust alliance. The United States and Republic of Korea have worked together over several years to develop a shared approach to address capabilities and military platforms that the Republic of Korea needs to acquire and support. As an example, South Korea has significantly invested in U.S. missile defense systems, namely Patriot and the Aegis BMD weapon system, to increase interoperability with U.S. capabilities and enhance shared security by countering regional threats.

Yet, we are deeply concerned that if we are unable to reach a fair and mutually acceptable agreement on a new SMA soon, then the continued friction will erode the proper functioning of the alliance itself. This could include readiness challenges and place the lives of United States service members, as well as our security interests, at increased risk. The only winners in that scenario are our adversaries.

These are serious concerns that we expect you share. We ask for your assessment of the increased risks created by the ongoing impasse in negotiations, your plans to mitigate those increased risks, the possible ramifications resulting from sustained mitigation efforts, as well as your plans to resolve this issue and reach a new SMA with the Republic of Korea at the earliest possible date.  We look forward to your prompt response.

Sincerely,

Press Contact

Juan Pachon 202-224-4651