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S. Korea, U.S. still have gaps in defense cost-sharing talks: foreign ministry

All Headlines 07:49 March 20, 2020

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, March 20 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States still have gaps over the sharing of the cost for stationing the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), the foreign ministry said Friday, after they wrapped up three days of hard bargaining in Los Angeles.

The failure to reconcile their differences added to concerns that Korean workers in the USFK could be forced to go on unpaid leave starting next month, as the U.S. military has repeatedly warned of their furloughs absent a deal to fund their wages.

Seoul's top negotiator Jeong Eun-bo and his U.S. counterpart, James DeHart, held the talks from Tuesday through Thursday to reach the cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement (SMA). They were initially to meet for two days but extended their negotiation for another day.

"Still, the two sides have differences in their positions, but they agreed to have close consultations to minimize the absence of an agreement and contribute to the South Korea-U.S. alliance and the combined defense posture through an early conclusion of a mutually acceptable agreement," the ministry said in a press release.

Heading into the new round of talks over how much Seoul should shoulder for the 28,500-strong USFK, the negotiation teams faced growing pressure to seek an early deal as some 9,000 Korean employees of the U.S. military faced furloughs that could disrupt day-to-day USFK operations.

Seoul's team had hoped to engage in separate negotiations for an arrangement to first address the Korean employees' wage issue in case of a failure to reach a comprehensive cost-sharing deal.

But the U.S. State Department balked, telling media that it could distract from "expeditiously concluding a mutually acceptable and comprehensive SMA that addresses all facets of the agreement."

Since last September, the two countries have held seventh rounds of SMA talks, including this week's session. But they failed to bridge differences over how much Seoul should shoulder this year and beyond, and what should be covered by the SMA.

The U.S. has revised downward its initial demand for a fivefold increase of Seoul's financial contribution to the USFK to some $5 billion. But it is known to currently call for about $4 billion, with Seoul insisting on an increase of about 10 percent.

Jeong Eun-bo (L), South Korea's chief negotiator in defense cost-sharing talks with the United States, poses for a photo with his U.S. counterpart, James DeHart, at their latest negotiation in Los Angeles on March 17, 2020, in this photo provided by the foreign ministry. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

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