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(LEAD) U.S. says much work remains for defense cost deal with S. Korea

05:45 February 22, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with details, background from 7th para; ADDS photo)
By Lee Haye-ah

WASHINGTON, Feb. 21 (Yonhap) -- Much work remains to narrow the gap in defense cost-sharing negotiations between South Korea and the United States, a State Department official said Friday, calling on Seoul to make a compromise.

The two countries have been negotiating a new agreement on splitting the cost of keeping 28,500 American troops in South Korea but failed to reach a deal after six rounds of talks.

The previous Special Measures Agreement expired at the end of last year, leaving South Koreans working on U.S. bases to face a potential furlough starting in April.

This AFP file photo shows the U.S. Department of State in Washington. (Yonhap)

"While we are not going to comment or confirm media reports on specifics related to diplomatic discussions between close allies, I can report that significant work remains to narrow the gap between the two sides," the official told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.

"During the course of negotiations, we have adjusted and compromised. We're looking for compromise from the government of Korea as well," he added.

Washington has demanded a hefty increase in Seoul's financial contributions at U.S. President Donald Trump's urging that allies pay more for their own defense.

Earlier reports had suggested that the U.S. wanted South Korea to pay some US$5 billion this year, up from the $870 million Seoul agreed to pay last year toward Korean workers' wages, the construction of some military facilities and logistical support.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters this week that the subject of burden-sharing will be discussed during next Monday's meeting in Washington between South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

This photo shows South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo (L) and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper at a joint press conference in Bangkok on Nov. 17, 2019. (Yonhap)

If the allies fail to reach a deal in the coming weeks, the U.S. will adjust the services provided by the nearly 9,000 Korean workers on the military bases, according to Rear Adm. William Byrne Jr., vice director of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We're continuing negotiations, and there are options -- big, medium, small, if you will -- with respect to numbers and we're hoping that the negotiations uncover a viable path so that those services continue," he said, speaking alongside Hoffman on Wednesday. "If needed, we're going to have to prioritize what services those workers provide. We're going to have to prioritize life, health and safety.

"There will certainly be an impact to both the service members and their families," he continued. "Most importantly, we have to focus on the mission. And the mission there is the combined defense of the Republic of Korea."

Earlier this week in Seoul, U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Robert Abrams met with the head of the USFK Korean Employees Union and warned that without a new SMA, "USFK is out of money and must prepare for a potential furlough."

The continuing impasse has raised worries about the health of the decadeslong alliance at a time when both countries face crucial challenges in the region, including North Korea's nuclear threat and China's military rise.

The State Department, which leads the negotiations, sought to allay those concerns.

"The U.S.-ROK Alliance is strong, and vital for safeguarding peace on the Peninsula as well as stability in the broader Indo-Pacific region," the department official said. "The United States seeks a fair and equitable outcome to the Special Measures Agreement negotiations for both countries that will strengthen and sustain the resilient U.S.-ROK Alliance."

hague@yna.co.kr
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