South Korea approves U.S. use of money for relocation
South Korea’s National Assembly passed a law Monday giving explicit approval for the U.S. government to use South Korean money for a long-term plan to centralize American troops south of Seoul.
The legislation came a week after more than 100 South Korean lawyers and activists filed a lawsuit claiming U.S. Forces Korea diverted South Korean payments intended for current military needs toward relocation construction and other costs.
The lawsuit, filed in Seoul Central District Court on Feb. 23, also claims USFK earned interest on the diverted money.
If true, that interest would amount to income on which USFK should be taxed, according to Jang Kyung-wook, a member of Lawyers for a Democratic Society and one of the 131 plaintiffs in the suit.
On Tuesday, a spokesman from USFK said the military command had no comment on the lawsuit. Nor did the U.S. Embassy respond to questions Stars and Stripes submitted last week.
The lawsuit names South Korea, rather than a U.S. entity, as the defendant responsible for making the money agreements with the U.S. military and charged with collecting taxes.
A spokesman at South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on Tuesday called the lawsuit "groundless."
He said USFK officials recently assured them the U.S. government did not earn any interest income on past payments from South Korea.
The spokesman, who asked not to be named, also said the two nations have had a "memorandum of understanding" since 2002 about using the yearly payments — often called cost-sharing payments — for the relocation. The law passed Monday re-emphasizes that, he said.
For years, South Korea has paid billions of won toward keeping U.S. troops on the peninsula. The latest five-year agreement, finalized in January, calls for South Korea to pay 760 billion won yearly with adjustments based on the consumer price index. About 28,500 U.S. troops are based in South Korea.
The lawsuit’s overall goal, according to a press release from the plaintiffs, is to reduce the contributions toward the U.S. military, collect any diverted money and reopen the money agreements between the two countries.