(ATTN: UPDATES with more remarks, details from 5th para)
By Lee Haye-ah
WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (Yonhap) -- The United States will adjust the services provided by South Korean workers on its military bases on the peninsula if the two countries fail to reach a cost-sharing deal in the coming weeks, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
Nearly 9,000 South Korean workers face a furlough in April if the allies fail to renew their agreement on sharing the cost for the stationing of 28,500 American troops on the peninsula.
"Nine thousand workers, that's pretty significant," Rear Adm. William Byrne Jr., vice director of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a press briefing at the Pentagon.
"We're continuing negotiations, and there are options -- big, medium, small, if you will -- with respect to numbers and we're hoping that the negotiations uncover a viable path so that those services continue," he said. "If needed, we're going to have to prioritize what services those workers provide. We're going to have to prioritize life, health and safety."
Washington has demanded that Seoul significantly increase its financial contributions to the upkeep of U.S. troops. Under the previous one-year Special Measures Agreement, which expired at the end of last year, Seoul agreed to pay some US$870 million.
The two sides have held six rounds of negotiations so far to renew the agreement but failed to narrow their differences. The next round of talks has yet to be scheduled.
"There will certainly be an impact to both the service members and their families," Byrne said. "Most importantly, we have to focus on the mission. And the mission there is the combined defense of the Republic of Korea."
The subject of cost-sharing will be discussed next week during a meeting between South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in Washington, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.
"The main goal of that meeting is just to continue the relationship we have, to build on our ability to fight together in defense of the peninsula," he said at the same briefing.
Asked about the impact of potential furloughs on the U.S. military mission, Hoffman said the service members will adapt to any changes.
"Our focus is going to continue to be on making sure we have our warfighting capabilities," he added.
Earlier this week in Seoul, U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Robert Abrams met with the head of the USFK Korean Employees Union and warned that without a new SMA, "USFK is out of money and must prepare for a potential furlough."
Hoffman refused to give details, citing the sensitivity of discussing which positions may be furloughed.
"Our goal right now is to reach an agreement and to work with Koreans to reach an agreement," he said. "As the admiral said, we will still focus on the mission and if there are contracts we need to fund to focus on the mission and to be successful in the mission, we'll continue to do that."
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