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Defense cost-sharing talks drag on with U.S.

Dec 12,2018
Korea and the United States are wrangling to the last minute over renewing their bilateral cost-sharing agreement for the maintenance of U.S. troops in Korea, kicking off another round of talks in Seoul Tuesday.

The two sides are racing against the clock to renew the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), a multi-year cost-sharing deal under the Status of Forces Agreement set to expire at the end of this year. Washington is demanding Seoul pay significantly more.

The talks to narrow their differences run through Thursday and are led by Korea’s top negotiator Chang Won-sam and Timothy Betts, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for plans, programs and operations.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the Donald Trump administration wants South Korea to pay as much as double the current amount, according to some people familiar with the talks, amounting to some $1.6 billion per year for the next five years. Other sources, it reported, said Washington is pushing closer to 150 percent of the current deal, or around $1.2 billion.

Under the current deal, Seoul pays around 960 billion won ($849 million), or around half the cost of the stationing of some 28,500 U.S. troops in Korea.

Washington has also called for a new category of “operational support,” which would include the cost of the deployment of strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula, and sharply increase Seoul’s defense bill. Since 1991, the two countries have conducted nine rounds of negotiations to decide how much Korea will contribute to the non-personnel costs associated with keeping U.S. troops in the country.

The negotiations to renew the SMA have taken place since March, and 10 rounds of talks have taken place in cities in Korea and the United States including Honolulu, Jeju and Seattle. The current accord, the ninth SMA, will expire on Dec. 31. If the two sides cannot reach a new deal by the end of this month, negotiations may resume next year.

This was also the case in 2013, where Seoul and Washington failed to seal a deal before the deadline and finally reached one in January 2014.

A Korean Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday, “In case a new deal is not struck [by this year], starting from Jan. 1, the agreement from this year will be extended and the difference will be covered by a reserve fund.”

Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha held bilateral talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Thursday in Washington, and the Foreign Ministry said that the two sides agreed to “work together to produce results that satisfy both sides” as they negotiate the defense cost-sharing agreement.

The Stars and Stripes reported Tuesday that the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) warned that Korean employees working on its bases will be furloughed if a new cost-sharing deal is not struck by the end of the year.

The USFK was reported to have sent a letter signed by its chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Michael Minihan, to the Korean Employees’ Union saying that the U.S. military will be “required to issue a general furlough notice” to take effect as of April 15 next year if negotiations are not completed in time. The letter said that it will continue to work with the Korean government “to find a solution to this challenge.”

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