LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
So the Trump administration is pressing U.S. allies to pay more for the stationing of U.S. troops in their countries. The U.S. has been locked in a dispute over this issue with South Korea. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul, an upcoming summit between the leaders of the United States and North Korea forced the two allies to shelve their differences for now.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Under the deal announced today, South Korea will contribute about $890 million a year for the U.S. military presence, an 8.2 percent increase over the last deal. That's less than $1 billion or more the U.S. had asked for. The money covers logistics and construction costs as well as salaries for the roughly 8,700 South Korean employees of the United States Forces Korea, or USFK. Last year, the U.S. threatened to furlough those employees if a deal wasn't reached. Son Gi-o, an official with the trade union representing the workers, says they'd have to stay on the job pay or no pay.
SON GI-O: (Speaking Korean).
KUHN: "If we stop working simply because wages are not paid," he says, "the work of the USFK would be paralyzed. And that could pose a critical threat to national security."
The Trump administration wants to get similar deals with other allies, particularly Japan and Germany. Chung Kuyoun, a political scientist at Kangwon National University in Seoul, says that, despite what President Trump says, South Korea does not have money to burn.
CHUNG KUYOUN: Given that the economy is pretty bad and income inequality is increasing, average wages is going down, paying more money for the military forces will become a political cost for the current administration.
KUHN: The U.S. insists that it's not considering withdrawing any of its 28,500 troops in South Korea. But some South Koreans fear President Trump could use U.S. troop strength as a bargaining chip in nuclear negotiations with Kim Jong Un. Among them is Won Yoo-chul, an opposition party lawmaker representing the city of Pyeongtaek. That's the site of Camp Humphreys, the largest U.S. military base outside the continental United States.
WON YOO-CHUL: (Through interpreter) I regret that President Trump made the unilateral decision to suspend U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises during the first U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore. I'm concerned that he may make a similar decision regarding the USFK in the second summit with North Korea.
KUHN: Other South Koreans believe that the dispute over defense costs will push Seoul to beef up military capabilities that are independent of the U.S. Song Young-gil is a lawmaker with the ruling Democratic Party. He argues that the U.S. should be asking Seoul for less money because its bases are not just to defend South Korea but to maintain U.S. global interests.
SONG YOUNG-GIL: (Through interpreter) Camp Humphreys not only serves as a defense base against North Korea, it also serves to contain China and Russia and to train U.S. forces deployed to the Middle East.
KUHN: South Korean lawmakers still have to ratify today's deal before it takes effect. Seoul had sought a five-year agreement but only got one. So both sides will be back at the negotiating table in a matter of months.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio in this story, as in a previous Web version, incorrectly says Kangwon National University is located in Seoul. It is in Chuncheon.]
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