South Korea and the United States will hold a new round of defense cost-sharing talks in Los Angeles next week, the foreign ministry said Friday, amid growing concerns over potential furloughs for Korean employees in the US Forces Korea.
Seoul's top negotiator Jeong Eun-bo and his US counterpart, James DeHart, will lead the negotiations on Tuesday and Wednesday as some 9,000 Korean workers are facing unpaid leave, which would begin on April 1 absent a new cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement.
The 28,500-strong USFK has repeatedly notified the workers that they could be placed in the temporary "nonduty and nonpay" status due to the absence of the SMA -- in an apparent move to pressure Seoul to make concessions in the stalemated negotiations.
Since last September, the two countries have held six rounds of SMA talks, including the last in Washington in January. But they failed to bridge differences over how much Seoul should pay this year and beyond and what should be covered by the SMA.
In the forthcoming talks, the two sides are likely to thrash out Seoul's proposal to first address the Korean staff's wage issues under a separate arrangement using the budget that Seoul has already earmarked for its financial contributions to the USFK this year.
If that arrangement is struck, Seoul hopes to incorporate it into this year's new SMA upon the negotiations' conclusion. Both the wage arrangement and the SMA are subject to parliamentary ratification.
The Korean workers at US military installations across South Korea have been carrying out administrative, health, transportation, communications and cleaning services -- integral parts of the USFK's day-to-day operations.
Apparently, mindful of the repercussions of their furloughs, USFK Commander Gen. Robert Abrams has said that the US will continue to explore funding alternatives up to and even during the required furlough.
Through the latest rounds of talks, Washington has reduced its initial demand for a fivefold increase in Seoul's share of the cost to $5 billion this year. But it is known to still demand Seoul shoulder an unrealistically high amount of the cost.
Another major fault line has been whether to expand the scope of the SMA.
Seoul has insisted that the negotiations should proceed within the existing SMA framework, while Washington has demanded that its coverage be expanded to include extra costs, such as those for rotations of American troops to the peninsula.
Last year's SMA called for Seoul to pay around $870 million. (Yonhap)