South Korea on Monday ruled out renegotiation of the cost for the deployment of the U.S. missile defense system, called THAAD, responding to pressure from the Donald Trump administration to share the financial burden.
"Our view is that it can't be an issue for renegotiation," Moon Sang-gyun, a spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense, said at a press briefing.
He stressed a bilateral agreement on the matter is already in place and there's a relevant stipulation in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
The SOFA calls for U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) to pay for the operation of its own weapons in the country, while the onus is on South Korea to supply "facilities and areas."
Who should foot the bill for the THAAD equipment being set up in South Korea has emerged as a hot alliance topic since U.S. President Donald Trump said in an interview last week that he wants Seoul to pay for it, estimated at US$1 billion.
The USFK has installed key components of the new weapon at a former golf course in Seongju, North Gyeongsang Province, under a controversial 2016 agreement with South Korea. They said the positioning of THAAD on the peninsula is a must to help thwart North Korea's nuclear and missile ambitions.
South Korea has already offered land for the site, with the U.S. required to fund the installation and maintenance.
The ministry's firm stance on the THAAD cost issue came after U.S. National Security Adviser Gen. H. R. McMaster told Fox News that his government respects the existing deal but only until "any renegotiation."
He pointed out that Trump, a former tycoon, is seeking to "have appropriate burden sharing, responsibility sharing" with South Korea and other American allies.
He did not specify whether him saying "renegotiation" heralds a push for talking again with Seoul on last year's agreement of THAAD cost.
The ministry official made it clear that it would be impossible to revise the contract without revising the SOFA on the legal rights and other details of American troops here and their presence.
Concern has grown, however, among Koreans that the THAAD deployment will eventually raise their financial burden.
The allies plan to start separate negotiations next year on sharing the financial burden for stationing the 28,500-strong USFK.
The current five-year contract, which calls for Seoul to pay 920 billion won ($807 million) each year, will expire in 2018.
With regard to South Korea's financial support, Moon said, the government will negotiate with the U.S. for an appropriate amount through a comprehensive review of various elements including security situations, the USFK's contribution, Seoul's financial ability and the stable conditions for the presence of U.S. service members.
He would not be drawn into a question about whether THAAD is among the factors to be considered in the talks on splitting the expenditures for the USFK.
"The talks are not just about a certain weapon system. It's about a gross amount (of budget)," he said, adding that it's premature to discuss the matter before the start of negotiations, of which results would depend on the bargaining strategies of the two sides.
Meanwhile, angry residents in Seongju, some 290 kilometers southeast of Seoul, continued protests against THAAD in their town known for melon farming.
More than 150 residents staged a sit-in, blocking the entry of police buses into the THAAD zone.
They believe police have been mobilized to facilitate the passage of fuel trucks from the USFK and other equipment.
They also demanded that police set free two protesters arrested during a street rally on the weekend.
Those local residents are worried about damage to their livelihoods and potential direct attacks from North Korea on their neighborhoods. (Yonhap)