Jeong Eun-bo, South Korea’s chief negotiator for defense cost-sharing talks, raised expectations that a deal with the US will come soon, as he departed for Washington on Thursday for a new round of negotiations.
Jeong and his US counterpart, Donna Welton are set for talks in the US capital Friday to negotiate the cost-sharing deal, known as the Special Measures Agreement, the pact that governs the upkeep of the roughly 28,500-strong US Forces Korea. The two last held talks via video links last month.
“Considering (the two sides) agree in substantial areas, we expect to reach an agreement soon,” Jeong told reporters at Incheon Airport before taking off.
The in-person meeting is to resolve unsettled issues between the two sides, he said, while declining to comment on details of the ongoing negotiations.
Jeong added that if possible, he intends to complete consultations on matters of principle through the upcoming talks. “But when it comes to talks, it is hard to make a prediction, and there could be more face-to-face meetings if needed,” he said.
On Wednesday, a US State Department official said that the two countries are “very close” to reaching an agreement on an updated SMA, according to Yonhap News Agency.
There has been growing speculation that Washington and Seoul are “just weeks away” from concluding the long-stalled talks, specifically before April, as the Biden administration has pledged to bolster the alliance and resolve outstanding matters.
The deal would likely be a multiyear agreement that increases Korea’s contribution by 13 percent from the previous accord -- the same figure Seoul suggested as its “best offer” last year, according to CNN.
The drawn-out talks toward the renewal of the SMA has put a strain on the long-standing alliance during the previous Trump administration. Despite multiple rounds of talks since September 2019, the two sides failed to come to an agreement, largely due to differences over the amount that Seoul should shoulder amid former President Donald Trump’s demand for a hefty hike.
Last year the two sides were close to signing a new deal when Seoul offered a 13 percent hike from the previous 2019 accord, when it paid 1.04 trillion won ($919.1 million), but Trump turned down the offer and reportedly demanded a 50 percent increase.
With the last one-year deal having already expired at the end of 2019, some 4,000 Korean employees of USFK were forced to go on unpaid leave for more than two months starting last April. Seoul decided to provide stopgap funding to pay their wages.
A Foreign Ministry official said the two countries share an understanding of the need to reach an agreement before April, to avoid a repeat of last year’s wage problems.
By Ahn Sung-mi (email@example.com