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US wargames in South Korea might be scaled back over coronavirus fears – or lack of funding deal with Seoul

US wargames in South Korea might be scaled back over coronavirus fears – or lack of funding deal with Seoul
News that the US and South Korea are considering downsizing joint military drills – ostensibly due to coronavirus concerns – comes as the Pentagon is trying to twist Seoul’s arm into paying billions for the upkeep of US garrisons.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper made a comment about coronavirus figuring into considerations about the drills at the press conference following a meeting at the Pentagon with his South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo.

Looming over the possible downsizing, however, is the unresolved issue of funding for US troops in South Korea. Seoul currently contributes just under $1 billion for upkeep of US troops, which have been garrisoned on South Korean soil since the 1953 armistice. At President Donald Trump’s insistence, the Pentagon has pushed for that amount to increase, reportedly to around $5 billion – a deal Seoul is apparently finding hard to swallow.

“Shouldering the cost of our common defense cannot fall disproportionately to the American taxpayer,” Esper said at the Monday evening press conference, arguing for a “more sustainable and equitable means of sharing” it.

As “a global economic powerhouse and an equal partner in the preservation of peace on the peninsula,” Esper added, “South Korea can and should contribute more to its defense."

The $5 billion figure would be more in line with what was reported last year, when Trump was said to demand a “cost plus 50” percent renegotiation of basing agreements with allies like South Korea, Germany and Japan. The White House has denied those reports, however.

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None of that is to say that the coronavirus is not a legitimate concern for the Pentagon. South Korea is second in the world after China for the number of COVID-19 infections – 800 confirmed cases and eight deaths, as of Monday. At least a dozen members of the military have been diagnosed. The Korean Defense Ministry even shut down its briefing room on Tuesday, after a local news camera operator was admitted to a hospital with symptoms.

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