Uncertain Status

Squabbling over the bill for the US forces in Korea is rankling the hosts.

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As the United States seeks to restart negotiations with North Korea, which shows no signs of dismantling its nuclear program, growing tension with South Korea over the cost of basing US troops in the country may complicate the effort.

On December 31, the Special Measures Agreement, the five-year contract covering the presence of the 28,500 US service members stationed in South Korea, will expire. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that negotiations on the next agreement are stuck, as the South Korean government is resisting the White House’s demand that it pay significantly more of the cost of basing the troops. Under the current agreement, South Korea pays the United States $830 million per year, roughly half the cost.

While American audiences are preoccupied with other issues -- China, Brexit, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation -- the disagreement over paying for the troops appears to have become a salient issue for South Koreans. A Predata signal that reflects anti-American sentiment among South Koreans has risen suddenly.

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The main driver of the signal spike is abnormally high levels of activity on Korean-language web pages related to the US-South Korea Status of Forces Agreement, the article in the two countries’ mutual defense treaty that concerns the treatment of US forces in South Korea. This is a sign that the President Trump’s demand for more money is driving South Koreans to scrutinize the foundation of the US presence in the country.

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If these patterns of online activity represent growing public antipathy toward the US presence, that might make it more difficult for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to convince his people that the United States is a productive diplomatic partner as talks progress on the peninsula.