SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea said on Wednesday that it had agreed to increase its share in covering the cost of the American military presence by 13.9 percent this year, removing a prolonged dispute in the alliance ahead of a joint visit by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III.
Differences over how to share the cost of keeping 28,500 American troops in South Korea have kept the allies at odds for years. The issue became particularly contentious under former President Donald J. Trump, who demanded that South Korea drastically increase its payments — by up to five times, according to some reports. Even as he warmed to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, Mr. Trump often accused South Korea of freeloading on American military power.
Negotiations dragged on for a year and a half, but began making progress after President Biden took office and vowed to restore alliances around the world.
Over the weekend, the United States and South Korea agreed to a five-year deal to increase the military payments, subject to legislative approval in both capitals. Under the agreement, South Korea will pay $1 billion this year, 13.9 percent more than its annual payments in 2019 and 2020, officials said on Wednesday. From next year through 2025, South Korea will increase its portion annually at the same rate it boosts its defense budget — at an average of 6.1 percent per year until 2025.
“By smoothly addressing the key pending alliance issue early on after the launch of the Biden administration, South Korea and the United States demonstrated the robustness of the firm alliance,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
Since the 1950-53 Korean War, South Koreans have considered the American military presence an integral part of their defense against North Korea. But Mr. Trump’s demand for a drastic increase unnerved many, raising questions about Washington’s commitment to defend its ally.
North Korea has long campaigned for the American troops’ withdrawal, arguing that the threat they posed, including their joint war games with the South Korean military, had forced it to develop nuclear weapons.
Mr. Trump met North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, three times to try to end the North’s nuclear weapons program, while the allies suspended or scaled down their joint military drills to support the diplomacy. Mr. Trump shocked many in South Korea, especially conservatives, by calling such exercises on the Korean Peninsula “tremendously expensive” and “very provocative.”
Mr. Trump’s diplomacy with Mr. Kim collapsed without an arms control deal with North Korea, whose nuclear and missile capabilities grew during Mr. Trump’s term. Still, the United States and South Korea greatly reduced the scale of this year’s annual springtime military exercise, which began on Monday, conducting it as a computer simulation without any large movement of troops. South Korea said that the drill was minimized this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic and a desire to keep diplomatic momentum with North Korea alive.
How to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table will be a key topic when Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin visit South Korea next Wednesday and Thursday, meeting President Moon Jae-in and other senior South Korean officials. North Korea has yet to react to their planned visit or the joint military drill by Washington and Seoul.
Mr. Blinken’s trip, which will include a visit in Tokyo before going to Seoul, was “to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to strengthening our alliances and to highlight cooperation that promotes peace, security, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and around the world,” the State Department said in a statement.
Mr. Moon, the South Korean president, has stressed the importance of the alliance with Washington while trying to maintain his country’s robust trade ties with China.
He is also an ardent champion of diplomacy with North Korea and helped arrange the summit meetings between Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim. He says that a breakthrough in denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang would spawn a political détente on the Korean Peninsula and help realize his dream of increasing economic ties between the two Koreas.
Mr. Moon’s government hopes that the Biden administration will follow up on the diplomacy started by Mr. Trump rather than going back to former President Obama’s policy of “strategic patience,” which focused on squeezing North Korea with sanctions.
After his diplomacy with Mr. Trump failed to lift sanctions against his country, Mr. Kim vowed to further advance his country’s nuclear capabilities, declaring that it would build new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missiles and make its nuclear warheads lighter and more precise.