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U.S.-South Korea Forces Agreement Set To Expire With No New Deal In Place


President Trump has called for allies to pay more for U.S. protection, but so far, his administration has failed to negotiate a new deal with South Korea over U.S. forces stationed there. The current cost-sharing arrangement expires today. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: It's called the Special Measures Agreement, a five-year contract that requires South Korea to pay $830 million per year. Experts say that covers about half the costs of the 28,000-strong U.S. Forces Korea. President Trump told troops in Iraq last week that Americans aren't, as he put it, suckers anymore. He's demanding that countries pay more.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I'm not only talking about in the Middle East. I'm talking about all over the world. Wealthy countries cannot expect the United States to pay for a vast majority of their military. They can pay us. They can reimburse us.

KELEMEN: South Korean media report that the U.S. wanted a one-year rather than five-year agreement this time and a 50 percent increase in South Korea's contribution. Most of it covers salaries for South Korean workers at U.S. bases as well as rent, utilities and construction. It's never been easy to negotiate these deals, says Victor Cha, who was the Asia director in George W. Bush's National Security Council.

VICTOR CHA: This was a train wreck in slow motion. I mean, you know, as everybody knew, as we got towards the end of the year that this was going to happen if they couldn't find some way to find a compromise in between the very extreme position of the Trump administration and, you know, what probably is a traditional South Korean negotiating position, which is to give a little bit more than the last agreement but certainly not pay for everything.

KELEMEN: The State Department says South Korea must contribute significantly more to achieve a fair burden-sharing agreement. For the time being, South Korea will likely continue under the current arrangement to ensure that its workers get paid. But Susan Thornton, who was until recently the top U.S. diplomat on Asia, worries about the signal this dispute is sending to North Korea, whose leader is planning to visit South Korea and hold another summit with Trump in the new year.

SUSAN THORNTON: That triangular diplomacy is already very delicate. And so to throw something like this into the mix, where you've got the U.S. and South Korea having a very public spat over something that should be frankly pretty routine, it's just, you know, another thing to advantage North Korea, I would say.

KELEMEN: Thornton, now at Yale University, described South Korea as a key ally that always has America's back in the region and beyond.

THORNTON: They are as close a friend as you can have, and I think the renegotiation of the Special Measures Agreement, it should be just like a routine, you know, re-upping of a lease between a landlord and a tenant. It's not anything that should call into question sort of the stationing of U.S. troops or the alliance or the U.S. commitment in Northeast Asia.

KELEMEN: Trump, though, has always tried to paint alliances as costing the U.S. too much money. That's the wrong way to look at it, says Victor Cha, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

CHA: The U.S. force presence around the world is part of the reason that we are a global power. It is the most physical manifestation of our alliance relationships around the world.

KELEMEN: And he worries about Trump's transactional approach to allies. Cha says that could intensify now that Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has a more traditional approach to allies, is leaving. In his farewell letter to troops, Mattis calls on them to, quote, "hold fast alongside our allies, aligned against our foes." Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.