(ATTN: ADDS more info, remarks in paras 6, 11-13)
By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, May 20 (Yonhap) -- A senior U.S. diplomat said Wednesday he is "very confident" the United States and South Korea will find a way forward in their stalled defense cost-sharing negotiations as both sides are working very hard to break the deadlock.
Marc Knapper, deputy assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan, made the remarks during a video-linked seminar on the alliance, amid concerns the delay in the conclusion of the talks could erode the allies' cooperation in other areas.
"For sure, we are working very hard to bring this to a conclusion. We'd preferred that we wrapped this up several months ago, but both sides are committed to making this happen," Knapper said in the forum hosted by the Korea Press Foundation and East-West Center.
"Both of our leaders are fully engaged on this. ... But it's a negotiation. But as allies, we are both compelled to find a way forward. And we will find a way forward. With that, I am very confident," he added.
The official reiterated President Donald Trump's stance on a "fair share of the burden" with American allies -- one of his election campaign themes prioritizing American interests.
"He made this clear from even during his election campaign that he wanted, working with our allies, to figure out a way to have a fair share of the burden among allies, not just South Korea but others whether in Northeast Asia or Europe, to lessen the burden on American taxpayers," he said.
"We want to do it in a way that is respectful, we want to do it in a way that is hopefully not too public, but do it in a way that ultimately will benefit the alliance and ultimately will strengthen our capabilities as allies," he added.
Seoul and Washington appear to still be at an impasse in the negotiations on Seoul's share of the cost for stationing the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) under the cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement (SMA).
Both sides have drawn battle lines, casting their latest proposals as the final ones. Seoul officials indicated a 13 percent increase from last year's SMA as the "best offer" Korea could make, while the U.S. has asked South Korea to pay US$1.3 billion a year -- an increase of about 50 percent from the 2019 SMA.
Due to the absence of a deal to fund wages for thousands of South Korean USFK employees in nonessential positions, they were forced to go on unpaid leave last month, apparently hampering the military's day-to-day operations.
Asked about North Korean's intentions regarding denuclearization, Knapper refused to speculate but stressed Washington's commitment to fulfilling the 2018 Singapore declaration between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
"What I will say is the U.S. policy right now is to leave the door open to diplomacy and that we remain committed to our efforts that began in Singapore, continued through Hanoi and through several other lower-level meetings," he said.
"Our goal remains to fulfill the spirit of the Singapore declaration, which includes dismantling the North's nuclear program and missile program but also bringing peace to the peninsula to transforming the US-North Korea relationships," he added.
In the online seminar, Knapper praised South Korea as a "model and exemplar for the world" for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and noted that the U.S. has benefited from cooperation with Korea in handling the virus outbreaks.
But he pointed out that the two countries' cooperation in fighting the coronavirus was thanks to "years and decades of people-to-people exchanges and educational exchanges between our two countries."
"I think everything we do bilaterally would not succeed were it not for two countries' rich history of exchanges, rich history of Korean students, researchers and scientists coming to the U.S. collaborating with their colleagues, building friendships and building other kind of collaborative efforts," he said.
The official then called for the two countries to bolster such people-to-people exchanges.
"Without those kinds of bridges being built every day, I think we are going to suffer in the future and I think we are going to lose future cooperative opportunities," he added.
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