Korea, U.S. still have gaps in defense cost-sharing talks: Seoul

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Korea, U.S. still have gaps in defense cost-sharing talks: Seoul

Korea and the United States still have gaps over the sharing of the cost for stationing the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said Friday, after they wrapped up three days of hard bargaining in Los Angeles.

The failure to reconcile their differences added to concerns that Korean workers in the USFK could be forced to go on unpaid leave starting next month, as the U.S. military has repeatedly warned of furloughs if a deal is not reached.

Seoul's top negotiator Jeong Eun-bo and his U.S. counterpart, James DeHart, held the talks from Tuesday through Thursday to reach the cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement (SMA). They were initially to meet for two days but extended their negotiations for another day.

"Still, the two sides have differences in their positions, but they agreed to have close consultations to minimize the absence of an agreement and contribute to the Korea-U.S. alliance and the combined defense posture through an early conclusion of a mutually acceptable agreement," the ministry said in a press release.

Heading into the new round of talks over how much Seoul should shoulder for the 28,500-strong USFK, the negotiation teams faced growing pressure to seek an early deal as some 9,000 Korean employees of the U.S. military faced furloughs that could disrupt day-to-day USFK operations.

Seoul's team had hoped to engage in separate negotiations for an arrangement to first address the Korean employees' wage issue in case of a failure to reach a comprehensive cost-sharing deal.

But the efforts for the funding arrangement did not appear to pan out well as the U.S. State Department argued that separate discussions on the wage issue could distract from expeditiously concluding a broader SMA.

The two sides did not announce a date for the next round of talks, amid expectations that they could meet again later this month in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the Korean workers' furloughs.

On Thursday, the USFK said that it had completed the process of sorting out its essential Korean personnel to be excluded from the furlough scheme. They are in charge of life, health, safety and readiness services.

The union of the Korean employees has voiced concerns that furloughs, if realized, could affect not only their families' livelihoods but also the South Korea-U.S. alliance and military readiness.

Since last September, the two countries have held seven rounds of SMA talks, including this week's session. But they failed to bridge differences over how much Seoul should shoulder this year and beyond, and what should be covered by the SMA.

The U.S. has revised downward its initial demand for a fivefold increase of Seoul's financial contribution to the USFK to some $5 billion. But it is known to currently call for about $4 billion, with Seoul insisting on an increase of about 10 percent.

Yonhap

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