(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 11-16: TRIMS)
By Song Sang-ho and Lee Haye-ah
WASHINGTON/SEOUL, March 19 (Yonhap) -- Nearly half of South Korean employees with U.S. Forces Korea will be furloughed next month unless the two sides reach a cost-sharing deal, the U.S. State Department said Friday, after the latest round of negotiations ended without an agreement.
Seoul's top negotiator, Jeong Eun-bo, and his U.S. counterpart, James DeHart, held a seventh round of talks in Los Angeles from Tuesday through Thursday to renew the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) on splitting the cost of stationing 28,500 American troops on the peninsula. They were initially to meet for two days but extended their negotiation for another day.
The U.S. State Department said the gap remains "large" and put the blame on South Korea.
"Given the importance of the U.S.-Republic of Korea Alliance and the urgency of a new Special Measures Agreement prior to furloughs of nearly half the Korean national employees of U.S. Forces Korea on April 1, a U.S. negotiating team traveled to Los Angeles under extraordinary circumstances this week to meet over four days," a State Department spokesperson told Yonhap News Agency.
"Unfortunately, a gap remains in the understanding between the U.S. and ROK on the value of the contribution of the American taxpayer towards the national defense of the ROK. A mutually acceptable agreement will require greater focus and flexibility from the ROK side to reach a fair and equitable burden sharing that accurately reflects that value," the spokesperson added. "The gap remains large."
Seoul's foreign ministry acknowledged the gap.
"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," it said in a press release.
Heading into the new round of talks over how much Seoul should shoulder for the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea, 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 efforts for the funding arrangement did not appear to pan out well as the State Department argued that separate discussions on the wage issue could distract from expeditiously concluding a broader SMA.
Before heading home, Seoul's top negotiator Jeong reiterated the need for an early settlement of the furlough issue to ensure "stable" working conditions for the workers.
"The two countries share the same view that the Korean workers' unpaid leave is not desirable under any circumstances, given their role for the stable stationing of the USFK, the South Korea-U.S. alliance and combined defense posture," he told Yonhap News Agency at Los Angeles International Airport.
"We are in talks with relevant government agencies over the issue of the possible furloughs and plan to have close consultations with the USFK if need be," he added.
Commenting on the outcome of the latest talks, Jeong said that the two sides have been in the process of reducing their gaps "little by little."
Asked if another round of face-to-face SMA talks can take place before April 1, when the planned furloughs are set to go into effect, he said it would be "realistically difficult" due to the spread of the new coronavirus.
"But we agreed to continue our consultations as we have various communication tools such as phones, email and the embassies," he said.
Since last September, the two countries have held seven 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.
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