South Korea and the United States have opened a new round of defense cost-sharing talks in Los Angeles, the foreign ministry said Wednesday, as Korean workers in the US Forces Korea (USFK) face unpaid leave absent a deal to bankroll their wages.
Seoul's top negotiator Jeong Eun-bo and his US counterpart, James DeHart, began the two-day negotiation session on Tuesday, following a two-month hiatus that underscored the deadlock over how much Seoul should pay for stationing the 28,500-strong USFK.
The seventh round of the talks for the cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), came as some 9,000 Korean employees in the USFK have faced furloughs that would begin on April 1 unless a new deal is struck.
Last year's SMA, which called for Seoul to pay around $870 million to cover part of the Korean workers' wages and offer other forms of support for American troops here, expired in December.
"The (first day of the) SMA negotiation session ended on Tuesday, local time, after the negotiators met in the morning and in the afternoon," the ministry said in a text message sent to reporters.
Seoul's negotiation team entered the new round of talks with an eye to reconciling differences on the total amount of Korea's payments for the USFK. But if the gaps are hard to bridge, it hopes to first address the Korean workers' wage issue.
In earlier SMA talks, Seoul proposed that the two sides first settle the wage issue under a separate arrangement using the budget that Seoul has already earmarked for its financial contributions to the USFK this year.
But a US State Department official opposed the idea of holding a separate negotiation on the wage issue, the Voice of America (VOA) has reported.
"The recent proposal by the ROK to launch a separate negotiation based solely on labor cost sharing would greatly detract from expeditiously concluding a mutually acceptable and comprehensive SMA that addresses all facets of the agreement," the official at the office of the department's spokesperson was quoted by the VOA as saying in an email message on Monday.
ROK stands for South Korea's official name, Republic of Korea.
"Furloughs may be avoided if the United States and the ROK reach agreement on a more equitable SMA that supports President Trump's view in which allies and partners should cover their fair share of the costs," the official added.
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 shoulder this year and beyond and what should be covered by the SMA.
The US 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)