Seoul, Washington kick off SMA negotiations

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Seoul, Washington kick off SMA negotiations

Korea and the United States will kick off a long overdue round of defense cost-sharing talks in Los Angeles today, with just two weeks left before the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) is set to furlough thousands of its Korean employees.

Seoul’s top negotiator Jeong Eun-bo and the Korean delegation departed Incheon International Airport Monday afternoon for their 7th round with U.S. officials on a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) for this year.

Jeong and his counterpart, James DeHart, are scheduled to hold the talks on Tuesday and Wednesday toward determining Korea’s contribution to the non-personnel costs related to the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed on its soil.

For months now, the allies have been at loggerheads over the Donald Trump administration’s reported demand that Seoul pay upwards of $5 billion toward the upkeep of the USFK - an almost fivefold increase from last year’s payment of $930 million.

The most pressing item on the agenda for the talks is the USFK’s plans to furlough 9,200 Korean employees working on U.S. military bases in Korea starting from April 1. In late February, the USFK said it would have to furlough nearly all the workers due to the inability to obtain funding absent of an agreement.

“Their loss will have an impact on readiness,” said USFK commander Gen. Robert Abrams said in a statement on Feb. 27.

A day before the USFK’s 30-day advance notice of the furloughs was issued to Korean employees, Jeong announced Seoul had proposed exchanging a memorandum of agreement with U.S. defense negotiators to settle the matter of the employees’ payment ahead of a final SMA deal.

“Korea and the United States share an understanding that a furlough must not be carried out for Korean employees working for the USFK,” said a Korean Foreign Ministry official. “We will actively work to ensure such a measure doesn’t actually go through.”

According to Jeong, a conditional deal between the allies could allow the USFK to receive administrative funding equivalent to last year’s SMA so that it can pay its workers. That amount can then be added to whatever increase is agreed upon in a final deal, Jeong said. Negotiators are also hard pressed for time as a result of Korea’s upcoming April 15 general elections, since an SMA agreement would require approval from the National Assembly.

The two-day talks represent the first time in two months both sides have sat down together, after the 6th round of negotiations in Washington narrowed their differences but fell short of an agreement in January. The 7th round was originally set to take place in Seoul, but a spike in novel coronavirus cases in Korea led to a change in venue.

All personnel in Korea’s 25-member negotiating team were tested for the virus at designated hospitals over the weekend before departing to Los Angeles, in line with Seoul’s new health policy for diplomats and businesspeople traveling abroad.

BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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