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U.S. ambassador: South Korea should share more defense costs

U.S. ambassador: South Korea should share more defense costs
U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris told reporters at his residence on Thursday that Seoul should contribute more to the costs of maintaining U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI

SEOUL, Jan. 16 (UPI) -- U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris said Thursday the gap between the United States and South Korea in defense cost-sharing negotiations is "narrowing," but Seoul "can and should do more" to pay for maintaining U.S. troops on the Korean Peninsula.

A sixth round of cost-sharing talks to renew the Special Measures Agreement wrapped up Wednesday in Washington, D.C., without a deal. South Korea's foreign ministry said in a statement both sides "broadened their mutual understanding and consensus but confirmed that there are still differences."

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Harris said there will be further discussions, and the United States is willing to compromise.

"I remain optimistic that e will reach an agreement," said Harris, who met with reporters at his Seoul home Thursday. "The United States has compromised our position, and hopefully Korea will also do so from the opposite direction, and we'll meet someplace and have an agreement."

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Harris would not confirm the widely reported figure that Washington is asking Seoul to contribute $5 billion toward maintaining roughly 28,500 U.S. troops, a more than five-fold increase from the $890 million Seoul paid in 2019. However, he said Washington has justified its asking price with an analytical breakdown of costs and echoed the Trump administration's stance that Seoul should be contributing more for its defense.

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"A country as prosperous as Korea can and should do more," Harris said. "It's unfair to ask the American taxpayer to shoulder a large part of the burden of the cost of defending this country. What we're asking for is a more equitable sharing of costs."

Harris added there was "time pressure" to get a deal done and that residual funds from the 2019 agreement were running out.

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The residual funds are being used to pay the salaries of about 10,000 Korean employees of the United States, and Harris said a required furlough notice will likely come soon.

The ambassador said the United States is open to resuming nuclear negotiations with North Korea, and President Donald Trump still believes Kim Jong Un will honor an agreement calling for Pyongyang to "work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" the two leaders signed at their Singapore summit last June.

"President Trump is confident that Kim Jong Un will meet the commitments that they made together in Singapore," he said.

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Talks between Washington and Pyongyang have been at a stalemate since a second summit a year ago in Hanoi, Vietnam, ended abruptly without an agreement. The two sides remain apart on the timing and sequence of sanctions relief in exchange for steps toward disarmament.

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In the latter part of 2019, North Korea conducted several short-range missile and rocket tests and returned to a more bellicose stance, with Kim recently warning the North was no longer bound to an agreement to halt nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests and would unveil a "new strategic weapon" soon.

Harris acknowledged that North Korea's short-range missile tests violated United Nations Security Council resolutions, but said Trump would not let them "derail an important opportunity to reach an agreement with North Korea over bigger issues of peace on the Korean Peninsula and denuclearization."

"President Trump and [South Korean] President Moon [Jae-in] are keeping the door open to negotiations and hoping that Kim Jong Un will walk through that door," Harris said. "And so the ball is in his court."

In a New Year's address last week, Moon called for greater engagement with North Korea and expressed a desire to proceed with inter-Korean projects such as tourism to the North's Mount Kumgang, as well as reconnecting rail and road links between the two Koreas.

In a follow-up news conference Tuesday, Moon said he thought the projects could spur targeted sanctions relief.

"By promoting inter-Korean cooperation, there may be ways to find approval to get some exemptions or exceptions to sanctions by the Security Council," he said.

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Harris praised Moon's optimism but added that any such moves "should be done in consultation with the United States."

"Not because we're in a position to approve or disapprove -- that's not our role -- but we are Korea's only ally, we do have 28,500 American troops here, and the American taxpayer does spend billions of dollars to defend this country, so we have an interest in inter-Korean dialogue," he said.

Harris also touched on the social media-driven criticism of his facial hair that has sprung up in South Korea, with some calling his mustache disrespectful and reminiscent of the Japanese governors-general who ruled Korea as a colony from 1910 to 1945.

The retired four-star admiral and former leader of the U.S. Pacific Command said growing a mustache was a way of shifting gears from a military career that spanned four decades to his new role as ambassador.

"I wanted to make a break from my military life to my new life," Harris said. "I couldn't grow taller, I couldn't grow hair on top of my head, but I could grow it on the front of my head."

The criticism of Harris, who is of Japanese descent, appears to be driven at least in part by a longstanding anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea that has flared up in recent months over a dispute about compensation for wartime laborers and economic retaliation from both sides.

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"I understand the historical animosity that exists between both of the countries, but I'm not the Japanese-American ambassador to Korea, I'm the American ambassador to Korea," Harris said. "To take that history and put it on me simply because an accident of birth is a mistake."

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