Burden-Sharing Talks are Distracting Washington and Seoul from the North Korean Threat

The unexplained periodic absences of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over the past two months are troubling. Presumed health ailments for this obese smoker and drinker could leave his nuclear-armed dictatorship potentially leaderless overnight.

When Kim does briefly show up in public, however, the news is no less settling. In his first reported appearance after three weeks around May 23, he vowed to boost North Korea’s nuclear war capabilities against the United States. Meanwhile, we’re seeing many signs that the global covid-19 pandemic has seeped into the isolated country, creating a potential health crisis of regime-rattling proportions given a failed public health infrastructure. You would think that under these circumstances, the U.S.-South Korean alliance would be focused like a laser beam on these threats. You would be wrong.

Rather than focusing on near- and long-term threats posed by the North Korean regime, Washington and Seoul are entirely absorbed by a petty dispute over who pays for what. Every five years, the two countries negotiate how much South Korea should pay for the non-personnel costs of stationing 28,500 U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula. But now those talks have been hijacked by a U.S. president who wants his ally to pay more than 400 percent more than the previous agreement of $920 million per year, which represented an 8 percent increase over prior years. Failed negotiations to close this gap in April resulted in the furloughing of thousands of workers on U.S. bases. A recent reported South Korean offer of a 13 percent increase, the largest in the history of the alliance, was rejected out of hand by President Trump after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper had reached an agreement with their South Korean counterparts.

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Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Ami Bera

Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation