South Korea signs deal to pay more for US troops after Trump demand

Timothy Betts, left, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary and Senior Advisor for Security Negotiations and Agreements in the US Department of State, and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, right, before their meeting on Feb. 10, 2019. Kyung-wha said the process was long but successful. (AFP)
Updated 10 February 2019

South Korea signs deal to pay more for US troops after Trump demand

  • The United States maintains a military presence in South Korea since the Korean War in 1950-1953
  • The new agreement will only last one year, compared to the previous agreements that lasted five years

SEOUL: Officials signed a short-term agreement on Sunday to boost South Korea’s contribution toward the upkeep of US troops on the peninsula, after a previous deal lapsed amid US President Donald Trump’s call for the South to pay more.

About 28,500 US troops are stationed in South Korea, where the United States has maintained a military presence since the 1950-53 Korean War.

The new deal must still be approved by South Korea’s parliament, but it would boost its contribution to 1.03 trillion won ($890 million) from 960 billion won in 2018.

Unlike past agreements, which lasted for five years, this one is scheduled to expire in a year, potentially forcing both sides back to the bargaining table within months.

“It has been a very long process, but ultimately a very successful process,” South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said at a meeting before another official from the foreign ministry initialed the agreement.

While acknowledging lingering domestic criticism of the new deal and the need for parliamentary approval, Kang said the response had “been positive so far.”

The US State Department senior adviser for security negotiations and agreements, Timothy Betts, met Kang before signing the agreement on behalf of the United States, and told her the money represented a small but important part of South Korea’s support for the alliance.

“The United States government realizes that South Korea does a lot for our alliance and for peace and stability in this region,” he said.

The allies had struggled to reach a breakthrough despite 10 rounds of talks since March, amid Trump’s repeated calls for a sharp increase in South Korea’s contribution.

South Korean officials have said they had sought to limit its burden to $1 trillion won and make the accord valid for at least three years.

A senior South Korean ruling party legislator said last month that negotiations were deadlocked after the United States made a “sudden, unacceptable” demand that Seoul pay more than 1.4 trillion won per year.

But both sides worked to hammer out an agreement to minimize the impact on South Koreans working on US military bases, and focus on nuclear talks ahead of a second US-North Korea summit, Seoul officials said.

The disagreement had raised the prospect that Trump could decide to withdraw at least some troops from South Korea, as he has in other countries like Syria. But on Sunday, South Korean officials told Yonhap news agency that the United States had affirmed it would not be changing its troop presence.

Trump said in his annual State of the Union address to the US Congress on Tuesday that he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Feb. 27-28 in Vietnam, following their unprecedented meeting in June in Singapore.

Citing officials at South Korea’s presidential Blue House, Yonhap also reported that South Korean President Moon Jae-in would discuss the upcoming summit with Trump “soon,” and that American and North Korean officials would be meeting in an unspecified Asian country ahead of the summit.

After the June meeting, Trump announced a halt to joint military exercises with South Korea, saying they were expensive and paid for mostly by the United States.

Major joint exercises have been suspended, but some small-scale drills have continued, earning rebukes from North Korea’s state media in recent months.

About 70 percent of South Korea’s contribution covers the salaries of some 8,700 South Korean employees who provide administrative, technical and other services for the US military.

Late last year, the US military had warned Korean workers on its bases they might be put on leave from mid-April if no deal was agreed.

Bushfire threat still high as Australia clean up begins

Updated 20 min 58 sec ago

Bushfire threat still high as Australia clean up begins

  • Firefighters were still battling 140 blazes across the country’s eastern seaboard
  • Tough conditions were expected to flare again in Queensland and New South Wales at the weekend as the temperature rises and winds pick up
GLENREAGH, Australia: Australians on Wednesday began sifting through the ashes of hundreds of bushfires that have ravaged the country, relieved that their worst fears were unrealized — but wary of a long and brutal summer ahead.

Firefighters were still battling 140 blazes across the country’s eastern seaboard, but a respite from “catastrophic” weather conditions meant the danger from many fires was downgraded.

The northern state of Queensland remained on high alert, with residents on the north shore of popular holiday town Noosa told to “leave immediately” as an “unpredictable” fire was burning nearby.

But in the worst-hit areas of New South Wales, cooler southerly winds eased conditions — a stark contrast with the gale-force gusts and high temperatures that plagued firefighters for much of Tuesday.

In all, 50 homes were damaged or destroyed, and around 20 people were injured, but most populated areas were spared.

Residents of the small towns of Glenreagh and Nana Glen returned to find houses intact, a nearby 150,000-hectare (370,000-acre) inferno having stopped just short of their doors.

But on nearby farmland, unlucky families faced homes destroyed and cars transformed into blackened husks.

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services acting commissioner Michael Wassing said another wind change on Wednesday afternoon could worsen several large fires in difficult-to-access areas of the state.

“We’ve got another tough day today and there’s an extended forecast that we’re not out of the woods by any means,” he said.

Tough conditions were expected to flare again in Queensland and New South Wales at the weekend as the temperature rises and winds pick up.

“We will not have all these fires contained before then,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said, adding that it could be “many, many weeks” before the situation is fully under control.

“Unfortunately, what we need is rain... and there is certainly nothing in the forecast for the foreseeable future that’s going to make any discernible difference.”

More than 300 new fires began in the state Tuesday, with 19 classified as emergencies. They spanned a distance of almost 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) — from the outskirts of Sydney north toward Brisbane.

“The losses, the damage, the consequences could have been simply enormous across such a broad geographic area,” Fitzsimmons said.

New South Wales Police said they had begun investigating whether a small number of the blazes had been deliberately lit, as they made handful of arrests for suspected looting of fire-stricken properties.

The hot, dry continent of Australia has long experienced bushfires, but scientists say climate change is exacerbating extreme weather conditions, including a prolonged drought in the country’s east that has created tinderbox-like conditions.

The Bureau of Meteorology says human-caused climate change is also “influencing the frequency and severity of dangerous bushfire conditions” by increasing temperatures, sapping moisture from the environment and causing an earlier and more extreme fire season.

The unprecedented wave of bushfires have brought renewed calls for the conservative government to curb fossil fuels and cut greenhouse gas emissions.

However Prime Minister Scott Morrison and other senior ministers have repeatedly refused to answer questions about climate change during the unfolding catastrophe.