Pentagon chief calls for quick resolution of SMA talks

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Pentagon chief calls for quick resolution of SMA talks

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday called Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo to discuss the importance of speedily sealing an “equitable” defense cost-sharing agreement between Seoul and Washington.

Reaching a new bilateral Special Measures Agreement (SMA) is especially urgent as over 4,000 Korean personnel working for the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) were furloughed last week for the first time ever because a deal hasn’t been reached. The previous agreement expired on Dec. 31.

Esper posted on his Twitter account after the conversation, “I appreciate Korean Defense Minister Jeong taking my phone call today to discuss the importance of equitable burden sharing across the alliance.”

He added, “It is critical that we get a fair, balanced, and comprehensive agreement signed quickly.” The tweet included a photo of an old joint press conference between Jeong and Esper in Seoul and #KatchiKapshida, Korean for “Let’s go together” and the slogan of the alliance.

Washington has indicated differences between the two sides despite Blue House officials last Wednesday hinting that a cost-sharing deal was imminent.

The Korean Ministry of National Defense said Tuesday that the call between Jeong and Esper took place Monday evening for over 20 minutes upon the request of the United States.

Choi Hyun-soo, a spokesperson for the Defense Ministry, said in a briefing in Seoul that the two sides “shared an understanding to reach a mutually acceptable defense cost-sharing agreement and that there has to be efforts toward an early conclusion” of negotiations.

Jeong once more emphasized that “resolving the issue of the furlough of Korean workers is the utmost priority,” according to Choi, in the context of the “common recognition by the Korea-U.S. defense authorities that delays in the SMA negotiations should not have an effect on the stability of the Korea-U.S. alliance and its airtight combined defense posture.”

However, when asked what Esper’s response to this was, she replied, “It is not appropriate for us to speak on the U.S. defense secretary’s remarks.”

Sources said the two sides still have some differences on burden sharing, again confirmed in this phone call, despite Blue House officials last Wednesday indicating that a tentative agreement had been reached and that an announcement could be made as early as that day.

Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also held a phone call last Thursday to try to prod along the cost-sharing agreement. Seoul diplomats have since said that the two sides will continue talks for an early signing of the 11th SMA, which have been in negotiations since last September.

Last month, Jeong Eun-bo, Korea’s top negotiator for the SMA, held talks with his U.S. State Department counterpart, James DeHart, in Los Angeles from March 17 to 19.

Washington reportedly is calling for Seoul to pay about $4 billion a year, which is lower than U.S. President Donald Trump’s demand for some $5 billion annually, a nearly fivefold increase in Korea’s contribution. Seoul has called for an increase of about 10 percent, and the tentative agreement was said to be closer to this amount.

In the previous 10th SMA signed in February 2019, Seoul agreed to pay around 1.04 trillion won, which amounted to some $920 million at the time, and around 8.2 percent more than what it spent the previous year.

Seoul has pushed for a separate agreement to enable the payment for the Korean workers for the USFK, but Washington rejected this saying it could delay the broader SMA negotiations.

Korean workers for the USFK were forced into unpaid leave staring April 1 for an indefinite period as the two sides negotiate Seoul’s contributions to the stationing of some 28,500 U.S. troops in the country.

Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of the USFK, in a message to the Korean employees last week called them “family” and said that the “furlough is in no way a reflection of their performance, dedication or conduct, but rather due to a lack of a burden-sharing agreement making programmed funds unavailable.”

However, Abrams drew criticism when he retweeted on his Twitter account Thursday a post that defined a Korean phrase, “kimchiguk masida,” which literally translates as “to drink kimchi broth” but is an idiom meaning “to count one’s chickens before they hatch.”

The post was seen as a jab at reports in Korea the previous day in which Blue House officials indicated that a tentative agreement had been reached between the two sides and that an announcement could be made as early as Wednesday.

The USFK said later in a statement that the tweet was “innocent” and showed appreciation of Korean culture and “should not be taken for any other meaning.”

However, the timing of the tweet, a day after the furloughs were implemented, was considered insensitive and a blow to the Korean employees of the USFK who had hoped that an early signing of a new SMA could enable them to return to work. The furlough also raises concerns about the impact on military readiness.

NBC News reported April 1 that Pompeo and Esper visited the White House on Tuesday to prevent the furlough of Korean workers for the USFK.

A senior Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said Monday that the cost-sharing “negotiations are still underway” but that “we are not at the stage to decide on a date” on the next round of talks.

The pandemic makes overseas travel and face-to-face meetings between top negotiators difficult. Korea’s top SMA negotiator Jeong was released from two-week self-quarantine last Friday following a U.S. trip.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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