Burden-sharing talks at impasse

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Burden-sharing talks at impasse

Washington and Seoul remain deadlocked on Seoul’s financial contribution to the stationing of American troops in Korea, according to officials here.

At the latest round of the Special Measures Agreement negotiations, the Korean government proposed to pay 869.5 billion won ($812 million) toward U.S. military expenses, according to Korean foreign affairs and defense officials, an amount similar to last year’s contribution. Washington asked that the amount be increased to 1 trillion won. That would mean, the analysts said, that Seoul’s contribution would increase from about 40 percent of the total to about 50 percent.

The two sides held a working-level meeting Saturday in Seoul on the matter. Korea’s delegation was led by Hwang Joon-kook, special ambassador for the Special Measures Agreement talks. His U.S. counterpart at the talks was Eric John.

“There is a long road ahead. Negotiations are expected to continue until November,” a Foreign Ministry official said yesterday.

Despite its political budget crisis, the United States has repeatedly emphasized that defense and security on the Korean Peninsula remained a high priority, most recently through U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit last week as the two countries celebrated the 60th anniversary of their security alliance.

In January 2009, the two governments agreed on a framework to share costs for the United States Forces Korea for 2009-13.

The agreement said that Korea would pay 760 billion won in 2009 and would increase the funding level in subsequent years with a maximum 4 percent annual cap. The agreement expires this year; the negotiations include both a new Special Measures Agreement and setting the level for 2014.

This is the ninth set of SMA negotiations since the first was negotiated in 1991. The two sides will meet again at the end of this month. Time is a factor; Seoul faces a budget deadline in the National Assembly at the end of the year.

“There are many areas that need to be settled between the two countries,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Yun Byung-se told the National Assembly last week concerning the negotiations between Korea and the United States, adding, “It is like racing along parallel lines.”

The Korean government notes that in 2000, there were about 40,000 U.S. troops in Korea, a number that has decreased over the years to the current 28,500 troops and, by implication, decreasing the amount of money necessary to support them.

President Barack Obama canceled an Asia trip this month because of the government shutdown, undercutting the so-called U.S. “pivot to Asia.”

Separately, U.S. officials have also shown signs of growing unease with Korea’s reluctance to take on wartime operational control of its forces, a change that is now scheduled for December 2015.

Hwang Ki-hwan, a political scientist at the University of Seoul said, “Even if the U.S. does not link the issues of wartime operational control, burden sharing and missile defense, negotiations are expected to be rough for the Korean government.”

BY JEONG WON-YEOB, SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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