March 18, 2020 | Policy Brief

Competing Crises: A Failed ROK-U.S. Burden Sharing Agreement and the Coronavirus in North Korea

March 18, 2020 | Policy Brief

Competing Crises: A Failed ROK-U.S. Burden Sharing Agreement and the Coronavirus in North Korea

American and South Korean negotiators are meeting this week in Los Angeles to continue negotiations on the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) for a fair and equitable cost-sharing arrangement for U.S. forces stationed in Korea. An April 1 deadline for negotiations looms, and the lack of an agreement will have long-term effects on the deterrence posture of military forces and the ROK-U.S. relationship.

According to press reports, the U.S. and South Korean negotiating positions still seem far apart, with little appetite for compromise. If no agreement is reached by April 1, some 9,000 Korean workers who support U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) will be furloughed without pay, severely impacting training and readiness.

In recent months, the United States has reportedly demanded $5 billion per year from South Korea for the duration of the SMA, though there are signs that Washington has reduced this number by an unknown amount. Still, the White House appears to be pushing for a major increase from the approximately $1 billion per year Seoul currently provides to offset the stationing cost of U.S. troops.

Even if the negotiators reach an agreement, both President Donald Trump and the Korean National Assembly must approve it. Gaining this approval in both Washington and Seoul may prove more difficult than it was for any previous burden sharing agreement.

The inability to reach an agreement has caused significant friction within the ROK-U.S. alliance as well as uncertainty regarding the future of the USFK’s Korean work force and the future status of U.S. forces on the peninsula. The ROK, Japan, and American proponents of the alliance structure fear that Trump will order the removal of some or all U.S. troops.

In addition to a potential reduction in deterrence and defense capability, failure to reach an agreement could have significant effects over the long term. Korean workers on furlough would soon search for alternate employment to make ends meet. Due to the loss of confidence in the future of the burden-sharing process, they are unlikely to return to USFK for employment even if an agreement is reached. The same uncertainty will likely also discourage other Koreans from seeking employment on U.S. bases in the future.

Further complicating the situation is the coronavirus crisis’ potential impact on North Korea. The virus’ effect on the North Korean military is unknown, but if the impact is too great, it could cause instability throughout the region. If the North suffers from an outbreak, Pyongyang could resort to provocations such as missile and rocket launches, naval skirmishes, DMZ clashes, and cyberattacks, to divert attention. As such, miscalculation and escalation are very real possibilities.

Finally, both the South Korean and U.S. governments are distracted due to the coronavirus epidemic within their own borders. Although negotiators are meeting this week, there is likely little bandwidth for continued negotiations. April 1 could thus be a train wreck for the ROK-U.S. alliance.

Yet there is a potential short-term solution. Both governments could immediately agree to suspend negotiations and keep the current SMA in force at the current funding level for the next two years. This would preserve stability within the alliance, allow both governments to deal with the coronavirus crisis, and return to the negotiating table at an appropriate time. Most importantly, the ROK-U.S. military alliance would maintain readiness to address the full spectrum of potential threats posed by the North, including war, provocations, and instability resulting from the coronavirus crisis.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Indo-Pacific Military and Political Power North Korea U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy