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S. Korea mulls disclosing defense spending to deflect U.S.' calls for burden sharing

2017/01/15 14:28

SEOUL, Jan. 15 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is considering a move to disclose how much it spends on national defense to deflect calls by the incoming U.S. administration for greater security burden sharing, sources here said Sunday.

The move comes as President-elect Donald Trump, who will be sworn into office this week, has espoused an "America First" policy and on numerous occasions called on Washington's close allies to do more for their defense instead of relying on the United States.

This view was echoed by James Mattis, tapped to be the next secretary of defense, who said in last week's confirmation hearing that he knows no plan to pull American troops out of South Korea and Japan but stressed that allies should also fulfill their obligations.

"I believe the United States is stronger when we uphold our treaty obligations, and when we stand by our allies and partners. We expect our allies and partners to uphold their obligations as well," Mattis said.

Policymakers here said that they plan to show the new administration that South Korea already spends a large percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP) on its defense so it is not free riding in matters of security. The country will also point out that it already allocates the largest percentage of its GDP to defense cost sharing with the U.S. compared with other countries.

"If the cost of KATUSA and purchases of U.S. weapons systems are calculated, Seoul does more than enough to share the burden of the bilateral security alliance," said an official, who declined to be identified.

KATUSA, or Korean Augmentation Troops to the United States Army, is a unique system found nowhere else in the world, under which Seoul provides the U.S. military with soldiers who speak both English and Korean, allowing for greater functionality and maneuverability of American forces throughout the Korean Peninsula.

On spending, the National Assembly Budget Office report in 2013 showed South Korea spent 836.1 billion won (US$711.2 million) to support U.S. forces in the previous year, while corresponding numbers for Japan and Germany stood at 4.4 trillion won and 600 billion won, respectively.

It said that while Japan spent five times more than South Korea, because of that country's larger economy, the percentage of that country's GDP spent on defense cost sharing in the cited year stood at 0.064 percent, while numbers for South Korea reached 0.068 percent. In the case of Germany, which again has a larger GDP vis-a-vis South Korea, its defense cost sharing burden stood at a much smaller 0.016 percent of its total economy.

On the matter of total military spending, South Korea's 2016 defense white paper said that in the previous year, the country allocated 2.4 percent of its GDP to national security. This is larger than 1 percent for Japan and 1.09 percent for Germany.

Per capita spending on defense stood at $681 annually in the one-year period, which is more than twice the number for Japan at $323. Seoul spends some 10 billion won annually for the KATUSA troops that can be seen as outlays to bolster up the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the country.

South Korean policymakers will use the sheer amount of arms the country buys from the U.S. to further highlight it is doing its part for the alliance.

Defense ministry data showed that from 2006 through October of last year, South Korea bought more than 36 trillion won worth of U.S.-made equipment, far outpacing what it buys from other countries.

It has signed up to buy the F-35A stealth fighter, as well as acquiring F-15K and KF-16 fighters, and AH-64E attack choppers. Seoul has also bought Airborne Early Warning & Control planes, Patriot missiles and various other weapons systems from its ally.

"Because Trump is a businessman, we need to provide exact figures to make clear we are doing our share," another military source said.

He added that while U.S. forces in the country are primarily here to defend against North Korean provocations, they serve Washington's greater strategic interests by preserving peace and stability in Northeast Asia.

On the other hand, some local experts cautioned that it may not be prudent to be overly defensive about burden sharing, with the country being better served by taking a more positive and active stance on burden sharing with Washington.

Park Hwee-rhak, a political science professor at Kookmin University, said that it is advisable to start talks by saying Seoul will do its utmost to do more and follow this up by outlining the conditions facing the country that need to be taken into account.

"Instead of saying we can't do more and then making concessions afterwards, it may be best to approach the matter to start on a positive note and tackle outstanding issues."

yonngong@yna.co.kr

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