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US, South Korea seek to break cost-sharing deadlock with furlough imminent

South Korean and American flags wave near Third Republic of Korea Army headquarters at Yongin, South Korea, in 2016.

KEN SCAR/U.S. ARMY

By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 16, 2020

SEOUL, South Korea — The United States and South Korea will resume talks to hammer out a defense cost-sharing agreement this week in Los Angeles as thousands of local workers face an imminent furlough.

The negotiations, which were scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday, will be the first in more than two months. The two sides remain deadlocked over U.S. demands that the South sharply increase its contribution to offset the costs of stationing some 28,500 service members on the divided peninsula.

U.S. negotiators have reportedly dropped initial demands for a fivefold increase in funding of nearly $5 billion a year but are still seeking an increase of at least three times the $920 million that South Korea paid last year.

Seoul, meanwhile, is believed to have offered to go as high as 10% more but wants to maintain the framework of the so-called Special Measures Agreement, which currently covers most of the salaries of South Koreans who work for the U.S. military as well as other logistical and construction costs.

Washington has sought to expand the scope to include the cost of rotational troops in a bid to justify its increased demands, which are a test of President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy calling on allies to pay more for their own defense.

“It’s going to be a very difficult negotiation once again because I think there are still huge differences between Korea and the United States about the total sum of the money,” said Won Gon Park, an international relations professor who has been involved in past negotiations.

He noted that South Korea will hold parliamentary elections in April, which will further delay the process since any agreement must be ratified by the National Assembly.

The Los Angeles talks will be the seventh round since September. The teams led by James DeHart for the State Department and Jeong Eun-bo for South Korea last met in Washington, D.C., in January.

“Our government will consult closely with the U.S. side under the basic position that both sides should share defense expenses fairly at a reasonable level within the framework of the existing agreement, with the aim of reaching an agreement as soon as possible,” South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The stakes are high as U.S. Forces Korea has warned more than 9,000 South Korean employees that they may be placed on unpaid leave on April 1 if no deal is reached.

That raised political pressure on the South Korean government and threatened the military community with increased delays in services and other inconveniences even as the country is coping with a coronavirus outbreak.

The previous contract expired at the end of 2019, but the United States had been paying the salaries with programmed funds that will run out at the end of this month.

USFK is expected to maintain more than a third of the work force after the Defense Department agreed to continue funding “critical” logistics cost-sharing contracts and key positions providing “life, health, safety and readiness services.”

But the situation has been complicated by the coronavirus, which has caused the Army to temporarily halt moves to new assignments that will lead to a major backlog in the spring.

USFK commander Gen. Robert Abrams said he has asked for additional resources and to be able to retain some South Korean employees to help mitigate the hardships.

“We’ll have quite a few service members stacked in the queue,” Abrams said Friday during a video briefing for Pentagon reporters. “So, we’re going to have a bulge competing with all the inbounds and normal outbounds for the months of May and June.”

South Korea has helped support U.S. troops under the agreement since 1991. Past deals have usually been for five years, but negotiators agreed to a yearlong stopgap measure after missing the 2018 deadline as well.

Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.

gamel.kim@stripes.com
Twitter: @kimgamel

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