Asha Mathew
January 24, 2019


The initiation of peace talks in the Korean peninsula has resulted in a string of diplomatic developments in the region. With President Trump looking to push for the denuclearisation of North Korea, the support of American allies in the region especially that of South Korea is crucial. In this backdrop, the expiry of the ninth Special Measures Agreement between the United States and South Korea in December 2018, and the failure of the two governments in renewing the five year contract despite yearlong talks on the same have raised concerns among many.

The Special Measures Agreement (SMA), a cost sharing agreement between the US and South Korea was signed in 1991. This agreement developed as a part of the Mutual Defence Treaty of 1953, a military alliance forged between America and South Korea, largely with the purpose of serving as a deterrent to North Korean aggression. The SMA largely lists out South Korea’s contributions towards labour and logistics cost sharing. As per the ninth SMA contract, South Korea paid approximately $830 million for the 28,500 US troops stationed there.

The US State Department brought out a statement early last year, with regard to the renewal of SMA stating that “both delegations are committed to developing an agreement that strengthens the US-ROK alliance and that ensures the security of the ROK and its people”. But the two countries failed to reach an agreement with America demanding that South Korea pay much more (150 percent more) and change the five year contract to a yearly one.

In the US, President Trump, right from the beginning of his presidential campaign, has been of the opinion that US alliances and partnerships are an uneven playing field with US losing out the most economically. In his inaugural speech, Trump mentioned how the US supports the armies of other countries at the cost of the weakening of its own military. With regard to South Korea in particular, Trump was quoted saying that the country pays ‘peanuts’ in return for military support provided. The US Congress pushed for a defence authorisation bill that puts a cap on the reduction of US troops from South Korea. The bill states that the removal of US troops from South Korea is a “non-negotiable” point and their presence in South Korea is an affirmation of the US commitment to the bilateral alliance. There were varying views in the US policy circles. Victor Cha, former Foreign Policy Advisor to President Bush, opined that the view that alliances are costing the US much is wrong, as US military presence around the world is what gives America its global power status.

Meanwhile, Paek Jae Ok, an analyst from the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses pointed out that defense cost-sharing should be a basis to reinforce the alliance, not a means for the management of the alliance. Apart from the provision of land and other amenities for the United States Forces Korea troops (USFK), Seoul also gives out tax waivers and other privileges such as clearance of convenience charges for utilising South Korean spaces. The issue he raises is that this indirect support lent by South Korea is not recognized by the US, and so it is crucial that the two countries agree to acknowledge each other’s portion of the shared cost, lest this creates mistrust in the ROK-US alliance.

With the White House’s recent announcement of a second meeting between the US and North Korean leaders in February this year, and with the ongoing US government shutdown, it is uncertain if and whether the negotiations for SMA will take place soon.

Although the two countries have failed to reach an agreement on the SMA in the required timeframe in the past too, it is different now with the new developments in the Korean peninsula. With the North Korea peace talks in process, the US and South Korea suspended a number of military exercises including the Vigilant Ace 2018, the largest ever air exercise between the two sides involving over 230 military aircrafts and over 12000 personal staff – as a sign of good faith to North Korea. It must be noted that Trump’s abrupt decision of calling off military exercises between the US-ROK, by referring to the exercises as “provocative” further sent out a rather confused signal to the South Korean government.

The formation of new partnerships and alliances is vital to American interest, as they continue to be crucial in handling traditional security challenges and primary to tackling non-traditional security challenges in the region. In this setting, America’s power projection and influence in the region can be attributed to its hub-and-spokes system of bilateral alliances where the US serves as the central hub and the allies as spokes. South Korea plays a valuable role in this system, serving as a regional focal point of US power. While on the one hand Trump works towards peace talks with North Korea, he also needs to realise that the triangular diplomacy, in this case US- South Korea- North Korea, is only slowly taking shape and the surfacing of cracks in the US-South Korea alliance with his hard and fast approach can be seen as detrimental to US interests and its allies in the region.

*** The author is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Canadian, US & Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University ***