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U.S. rejects call to first address Korean workers' wage issue in defense cost talks: official

All News 10:03 March 21, 2020

SEOUL, March 21 (Yonhap) -- The United States has officially opposed a proposal for a separate deal to fund wages for South Korean workers in the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), Seoul's top negotiator in the allies' defense cost-sharing talks said Saturday.

During the latest talks in Los Angeles, South Korea had pushed for the proposal, as thousands of the workers face furloughs that could start on April 1 absent the cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement (SMA).

"We proposed a memorandum of understanding to ensure that the workers will receive their pay and strongly demanded that this be first addressed," Seoul's top negotiator Jeong Eun-bo told reporters upon arrival at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul.

"The U.S. side officially opposed that proposal on the grounds that there is a possibility that (a separate negotiation on the wage issue) could further delay the negotiations (for a broader SMA)," he added.

Jeong Eun-bo, South Korea's top negotiator in defense cost-sharing talks with the United States, speaks to the press at Incheon International Airport on March 21, 2020. (Yonhap)

Jeong stressed that he would continue to make best efforts to secure "stable" working conditions for the Korean workers, though he noted the possibility that they could be forced to go on unpaid leave.

From Tuesday through Thursday, Jeong and his U.S. counterpart, James DeHart, held a seventh round of negotiations over how much Seoul should pay for stationing the 28,500-strong USFK this year and beyond under a new SMA. But they failed to bridge differences.

After the negotiations, the U.S. State Department said that the gap remains "large" and that nearly half of South Korean employees in the USFK will be furloughed next month unless the two sides reach a cost-sharing deal.

The USFK has repeatedly notified some 9,000 Korean personnel that they could go on unpaid leave absent a new SMA. Last year's deal, which called for Seoul to pay around US$870 million, expired in December.

Despite the U.S. assessment of the gap as "large," Jeong hinted that there has been some progress in the latest talks.

"We have discussed things related to the total amount of Seoul's payments and have been reducing the scope (of the differences)," he said. "Although the U.S. says the gap remains still large, I would like to say that our thought is different."

He reiterated that Seoul will continue to strive hard for a fair, reasonable agreement with a view to contribute to the decades-old alliance and combined defense posture.


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