Military costs talks in final round

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Military costs talks in final round

Korea and the United States entered another round of talks yesterday over who will pay how much of the cost of keeping U.S. troops here.

Time is running out as the five-year Special Measures Agreement (SMA) expires at the end of the year.

The time frame of the ninth round of talks was not decided. Previous talks usually ran for two days. They are held alternately in Seoul and Washington.

In January 2009, the two governments agreed on a framework that set Korea’s contributions at 760 billion won ($722 million), with provisions to increase the amount at a maximum of 4 percent annually to take into account inflation. Korea is required to pay more than 40 percent of the cost of keeping U.S. troops here.

The United States reportedly wants to increase Korea’s contribution to 1 trillion won, bringing Korea’s share to around 50 percent.

The two sides have not been able to bridge a gap of around 100 billion won in their negotiations.

Washington has faced overall budget cuts, and the Department of Defense has been hit by the automatic cuts referred to as sequestration.

But it continues to say it supports South Korea, especially in light of continued threats and attacks from North Korea.

Korea paid 869.5 billion won this year, according to statistics from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and 836 billion won last year.

Korea’s delegation was led by Hwang Joon-kook, special ambassador for the SMA talks.

His U.S. counterpart at the talks was Eric John, a former U.S. ambassador to Thailand who has served three tours in Korea.

“Taking into consideration the process required to pass [the agreement] in Korea’s National Assembly, there is joint consensus that these talks should wrap up negotiations,” said a government official.

But Korean officials said after the eighth round held in Washington last week, there were “still differences of opinion” despite some progress.

The negotiations were initially expected to be concluded in October.

The two sides are also at odds over setting a time frame for the agreement between three to five years, and at what level to set the annual increase in subsequent years to take into account inflation.

The Korean government noted 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.

It says the money needed by them should have decreased.

“In reality, there have been past instances in which negotiations went past December and this has not impacted directly the budget for the troops,” a foreign affairs official said.

This is the ninth set of SMA negotiations since the first was negotiated in 1991 to share the non-personnel stationing costs associated for the U.S. forces in Korea.

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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