Bills may set South Korea as preferred buyer of arms

By Erik Slavin, Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Wednesday, March 19, 2008

SEOUL — Two U.S. congressional bills that would make defense purchases easier for South Korea are being closely watched, spokesmen for the South Korean Ministry of Defense and U.S. Forces Korea said Monday.

If passed by the House and Senate, South Korea would receive the most preferential treatment possible for foreign military sales under U.S. law.

“Obviously, we believe this presents a win-win for U.S. and South Korea relations,” USFK spokesman Col. Franklin Childress said during a phone interview Monday.

The House bill, known as H.R. 5443, was introduced by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) and Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) in February. A similar senate version was introduced by Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) in June 2007. Both bills are with their respective foreign affairs committees.

The highest foreign military sales status is known as “NATO-plus-three” and conferred to members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, plus Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

If given status as the fourth non-NATO member, South Korea would only have to notify Congress of weapons purchases from U.S. companies of more than $25 million and services or technical help above $100 million. Currently, South Korea must notify Congress of military purchases costing $14 million or more and services above $50 million.

Right now, Congress responds to South Korean purchase requests within 50 days; under preferred status, the wait would be cut to 15 days.

Three former Soviet Union states, now NATO members, have superior military sales status to South Korea, USFK commander Gen. B.B. Bell told the House Armed Services Committee on March 12, according to a news release from Royce’s office.

Bell said South Korea was the United States’ most reliable ally and largest customer on a yearly basis.

“So it is, from my perspective, bizarre and strange that we would give a higher level of foreign military sales status to anyone other than [South Korea],” Bell said.

A South Korean Ministry of Defense official told Stars and Stripes on Monday that an upgrade in the country’s purchasing status “is very important” and could reduce costs because of the greater ability to buy in bulk in a shorter time frame.

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Stars & Stripes  (Posted 3/27/08)