DeHart: Well, I’ll just say a couple of things at the top, if that’s okay. First of all, we are very appreciative that the Korean government hosted us for this latest round of talks. We’ve been working very hard to achieve a fair and equitable burden-sharing agreement. We have work that still needs to continue.
I want to emphasize right away that these are discussions that are taking place between very close allies, so as close allies with a long history together, we have the ability to be very open and candid with each other, but we always bear in mind that we have a very close and respectful relationship as we talk.
I’ve spent my entire career working with close allies and in strong alliances; I know from experience that we are always stronger when we are together with our allies, like the Republic of Korea, so we take that very seriously as we conduct these negotiations.
This question of burden-sharing is not just about the Republic of Korea, but as our President has said, we think that we need fair and equitable burden-sharing with all of our allies around the world. And, so, we have been pursuing that with many governments around the world. It’s in part because of the forward presence that the United States has had for many decades that countries like Korea have succeeded democratically and economically, and today are in a position – we think – to contribute more to the alliance. So, we are discussing this in the negotiations.
What we want is an agreement that is mutually acceptable, an agreement that the government of Korea will find value in, an agreement that will be supported by the National Assembly. We respect very much the role of the National Assembly in providing its consent to any agreement. And also an agreement that will be welcomed and supported by the people of the Republic of Korea. That’s the kind of agreement that we are seeking to find, and it’s the agreement that I think is very possible and achievable for the two sides. It’s within our reach, and we should be able to do that.
I do want to say, I think very importantly there have been some big figures that have been repeated many times in the Korean media, and those figures do not reflect where we are in our discussions with the Republic of Korea today. We have listened in these negotiations probably more than we have spoken, we have adjusted and we have compromised, as well, because that is what happens in discussions between close allies, and when both sides are trying to get to an agreement. We’re looking for that compromise as well from the government, and I’m confident we can have a successful result. So, we will keep working and continue the talks in January.
Question: From your statement, sir, I got the feeling that the U.S. is not sticking to the $5 billion demand anymore, so what’s the bottom number the U.S. is willing to settle for at this point in time, and what is the number that the U.S. believes is acceptable to the Korean people and the National Assembly?
DeHart: Well, again, we have been listening, we have been adjusting, and we have been compromising. And, we know that the agreement, when we reach the agreement, the figure will be different from our initial proposal, and probably different from what we have heard from the Korean side so far. So, we will find that point of agreement, I think.
Question: Did you present a specific number in this week’s negotiations, sir? Can you share that number?
DeHart: Well, we are always talking about numbers; we’ve been looking together at the calculations of costs. We’ve had long, very detailed discussions of Korean contributions within the SMA and also of contributions that are made outside of the SMA. And, we’ve had deep discussions of our costs: those that take place, that are captured by the current SMA, and those costs to us – which are many, and which are not captured by the SMA. So, the discussions have been very detailed in the respect.
Question: So, you can not reveal the specific number for this interview? To prevent people from continuing to say “the $5 billion demand,” which is not correct.
DeHart: That’s why I say that that’s not a number that we are currently focused on in the negotiations. But, beyond that, these are private discussions between two close allies, and so I think when we reach an agreement, we’ll be in a position to explain that number and how we got there.
Question: Was there any discussion about the total duration of the prospective deal, like a one-year deal, or a two-year, multiple-year deal? Was there any consensus?
DeHart: I think there’s more than one possibility as an outcome. In the past, they have generally been multi-year deals, and we’re not interested in extending for only one year. We think it should be longer.
Question: Any target year, specifically?
DeHart: Well, in the past, they’ve generally been up to five years. But again, this is subject to the discussions we’ve been having.
Question: After the negotiations were concluded today, the Foreign Ministry here released a press release, and it said the two sides here are broadening [?] their understanding. And, I’m wondering, in what sense, how deep and in what respect are the two sides broadening their understanding.
DeHart: Well, we’ve presented a lot of information from both sides on the different kinds of costs. For example, from our side, we have costs that are very directly – most directly – related to our stationing of forces on the Peninsula. For labor costs for the Korean workforce for U.S. Forces Korea, the construction that takes place, the logistics cost-sharing. By the way, far more than 90% of the Korean contributions, through the current SMA in those categories, goes right back into the Korean economy. So, it’s beneficial to the economy here.
Then, we have those larger sets of costs that are not captured within the current SMA framework, and that includes all of the rotations of our military personnel to the Peninsula and those temporary deployments. All of those personnel have to be trained appropriately, they have to be equipped appropriately, they have to be transported here and back constantly. This is all about maintaining an extremely high state of readiness for the defense of the Republic of Korea.
And then we have many other costs that are not captured in the SMA: the bridging capabilities, the military capabilities that we provide, because the Republic of Korea has not yet developed these capabilities itself. Some of these are very expensive capabilities, but all are very important to the defense of Korea. So, we’ve had extensive discussions about all of these factors. And we’ve listened very carefully to the explanations of the Korean government about its contributions, past, present and future.
Question: We’ve pieced all these questions together from the press corps, and one related question is, “Can you explain the U.S. rational for the initial $5 billion request?”
DeHart: Well, and as I said, we are focused differently at this stage of the negotiations. But, it’s about coming to an agreement that better reflects the total costs to the United States for defending the Republic of Korea. Because, if you look at the direct costs of having our forces here, in terms of the labor, the construction, logistics, it’s a relatively small part of what it costs in its entirety to defend Korea. And these costs are growing quickly. With technology, the capabilities that we provide today are evolving, and they are far different. And, so, the costs are much, much larger when you look at the force structure decisions, and all of the activities and investments that we have to make so that we will have the capabilities to respond in a crisis to defend the Republic of Korea. So, we’ve tried to capture that in our proposals, and we’ve had deep discussion of that. But, that was really the genesis of it – looking at our defense of Korea in a broad context.
Question: Following up with your remarks, South Korea is considering contributing to maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz, and has also decided to shoulder some of the initial costs of massive decontamination of the bases being returned to our government. Are such contributions, including Korea’s offer of buying massive weapons from the United States in the future, being factored into the negotiations, and also can this help move forward some of the talks going on?
DeHart: I would say, on the first topic, as an American official, I think it is positive whenever the Korean government contributes to international initiatives that enhance security. But, that has not been a topic of discussion in our talks at all. As for the issue of environmental clean-up, that also has not been a significant topic in our discussions. I know there’s a separate format for addressing those issues, so that takes place outside of the SMA context.
We have arms purchases, and Korea does purchase, does acquire, a significant level of American weapons systems. This is an important consideration for us in the burden-sharing context. It’s one factor among many that we are considering.
Question: It’s one factor, but it could factor into SMA discussions, right?
DeHart: Yes. But, I would say that the most important factor to consider in these talks is, “what are the contributions that Korea will make that reduce the cost to the American taxpayer?” Because the American taxpayer bears a very significant burden of all the capabilities and all the investments the United States makes in order to defend the Republic of Korea. So, for me, that’s the most important question: What reduces the burden to our taxpayer?
Question: When it comes to the SMA discussions, we were wondering about the “new category,” in addition to the three existing ones. So, can you elaborate on the specifics on the new category, and how do you term that – do you have any name that you presented during the negotiations?
DeHart: This comes back to the issue that I raised before, which is that the current framework doesn’t capture the full range of costs to us; it does not capture the real costs to us, associated with the defense of Korea. So, we proposed that the SMA framework be adjusted so that it really can capture the full range of costs. But, this is open to discussion, and again, we are trying to reach an agreement, so we will continue this discussion.
Question: So, it’s ok to say that the U.S. is still sticking to that demand for the creation of a new category in the SMA?
DeHart: We think it’s important to capture more effectively the totality of the costs to us. And, there’s more than one way to do that. So, those are the kinds of discussions that we are continuing.
Question: So, regarding the new category, there have been a lot of news reports that it may involve the cost of transporting rotational troops and their equipment, and supporting their families and any off-Peninsula operations, and even the cost of stationing the THAAD system here in Korea. Is it true?
DeHart: Well, I want to emphasize that, first of all, that we are asking the Republic of Korea share in the cost, as opposed to taking on all the cost of any category. And that all of the costs we are talking about are directly associated with the defense of the Republic of Korea. Not activities that are separate from that. So, that’s how we are looking at the situation, and how we are discussing it.
Question: And what about the off-Peninsula activities that are not directly related to the stationing of U.S. forces, but still helps the defense of South Korea? Do you think it should be included in the SMA?
DeHart: I think it’s a very appropriate discussion to have with the Republic of Korea, whether they are willing to share in the large costs of transporting American service personnel on-and-off the Peninsula, and to be equipped to operate on the Peninsula, and to be trained to operate on the Peninsula, because it’s all about the defense of Korea. So, I think it’s reasonable to share in some of those costs, even if some of those expenses technically take place off the peninsula, rather than on the peninsula. Because, it’s all about the defense of Korea.
Question: One criticism is about the creation of a new category that could go beyond confines of the existing SMA framework. What would you say to that?
DeHart: As parties to the agreement, we can change the agreement if we agree to do it together. So, the SMA agreement has been updated and changed through the years. It’s a standalone…in itself it’s a Special Measures Agreement. So, it was created as a special measure, and if we agree together to change it, it’s perfectly fine to do so.
Question: Do you want to change the clauses or articles of the SMA, or do you want to change the interpretation of it, in order to expand the scope of it? What are the discussions that are taking place right now?
DeHart: Well, the SMA has been updated many times in the past, where language has been changed to reflect the evolving view of the two parties, so it’s not unprecedented to make changes if both parties can agree.
Question: I know you’re a long-time NATO expert, and President Trump recently said that the U.S. may take trade-related actions for countries that are not contributing enough to the NATO Alliance. There are concerns in Korea that such actions could be taken against Seoul. So, what’s your take on this, and could it also extend to security matters, including the reduction or withdrawal of troops altogether?
DeHart: Well, neither of those things are in any instructions given to me, and neither of those things have we really discussed in the negotiations. We’re focused in a different way, and we are focused on what we need to do to come to an agreement that will be acceptable to both sides and acceptable to the Korean people and National Assembly.
Question: One [last] question: Do you have a deadline next year, sir?
DeHart: I don’t have a single date in mind; we are working very hard to try to conclude this agreement as quickly as we can. So, we will be working very energetically in the new year, in January to try to get it done.