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S. Korea, US resume talks on defense cost-sharing

Jeong Eun-bo, South Korea’s top negotiator for the defense cost-sharing deal with the US (Yonhap)
Jeong Eun-bo, South Korea’s top negotiator for the defense cost-sharing deal with the US (Yonhap)

South Korea and the United States will resume talks Tuesday in Los Angeles to discuss the upkeep of 28,500 American troops here and 9,000 Koreans working for US Forces Korea, Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said Friday.

In his two-day talks with James DeHart of the US State Department, Jeong Eun-bo, Korea’s top negotiator, is expected to push for a partial agreement on the issue of Korean civilians employed by USFK.

Following Seoul and Washington’s failure to reach an agreement in their last defense cost-sharing talks on Jan. 14-15, the US military notified Korean employees that they would be put on unpaid leave starting April 1.

In response to the furlough decision, Korea offered the US a separate memorandum of understanding to address the salaries of Korean employees of USFK. The US rejected the proposal, saying side negotiations would forestall a reciprocal, comprehensive Special Measures Agreement.

USFK Commander Robert Abrams said the unpaid leave would not affect US military members’ “life, health or safety or minimum readiness,” in the short term, but that he was unsure of its long term consequences.

Vincent Brooks, former commander of USFK, warned of the ramifications of a prolonged impasse. He likened the existing deadlock to a “game of chicken” between the two countries.

“This is about obligation of authority. And trying to play a game of chicken if you will where one side waits to see of any one is going to flinch or move first will be very damaging to the alliance,” the ex-commander told Voice of America.

Seoul and Washington began negotiations on defense cost-sharing in September last year, but have failed to narrow the gap on how much more Seoul should contribute for this year. Washington had earlier asked for about $5 billion, fivefold what Seoul had been paying.

Korea is trying to bring down the total cost and seal an agreement as early as possible ahead of general elections in April, as Seoul’s National Assembly would have to review and ratify the finalized agreement.

By Choi Si-young (