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International relations

Seoul to spend more for US troops under pressure from Trump

Concession signals importance of coming Trump-Kim talks for South Korea

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Timothy Betts, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary and Senior Advisor for Security Negotiations and Agreements in the U.S. Department of State, shake hands before their meeting at Foreign Ministry in Seoul on Feb. 10.   © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korea will pay 8% more this year toward the upkeep of American troops in the country under a deal it inked with the U.S. on Sunday, shelling out more than 1 trillion won ($890 million) for the first time amid heavy pressure from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Seoul will pay about 1.03 trillion won under the deal, which covers only a single year, unlike previous agreements that tended to last five. There are concerns that Trump will push the South to pay still more next year.

The deal, which requires South Korean parliamentary approval, was signed by diplomatic officials from the two sides in Seoul. Previous working talks on paying for America's over 28,000 troops in the South had fallen apart as Trump pressed Seoul to cover more of the costs, apparently demanding that it shoulder about $1.6 billion at one point. The previous deal expired Dec. 31.

The administration of President Moon Jae-in appeared to push back, insisting Seoul was already paying enough and seeking to keep its share under 1 trillion won in a multiyear deal.

The concession was likely a gesture of goodwill to Trump ahead of his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, scheduled for Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam. Moon's administration, which has been working to rebuild relations with the North, hopes to win Washington's permission to resume providing humanitarian aid to Pyongyang and restart inter-Korean economic activities. Under the circumstances, Seoul likely decided digging in deeper on the payments issue would not be in its best interest.

However, the agreement to a single-year deal may have unintended consequences. Washington will likely press Seoul to shoulder a greater burden every time they return to the negotiating table, with Trump having alluded to the possibility of scaling back or completely removing the U.S. military presence in the South.

The bilateral agreement may also impact other countries where U.S. troops are stationed. Japan, which is due to negotiate with Washington next year on paying for American troops for the five years from fiscal 2021, has been watching the proceedings in its neighbor closely.

Seoul aims to execute the deal with the U.S. after winning parliamentary approval in April. The South's Yonhap News Agency noted that Trump, who aims to secure re-election in 2020, will likely be on the hunt for diplomatic victories to tout at home, suggesting that negotiations for next year could be tougher still.

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