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Seoul already made best offer on defense costs: reports

(Yonhap)
(Yonhap)

South Korea has already presented the US with its best possible offer in ongoing defense cost-sharing talks, local reports said Wednesday, as the US called for more “flexibility.”

The reports cited an unnamed source as saying that Seoul’s proposal for a 13 percent increase over the 1.04 trillion won ($850 million) that it paid last year to host US troops was the highest it could offer, reiterating remarks last week from Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha during a parliamentary session.

On Tuesday, Marc Knapper, deputy assistant secretary of state for South Korea and Japan, said Washington had been “very flexible” in the defense cost-sharing talks with Seoul and expected reciprocity.

“We are always saying we don’t want to negotiate this in public,” said Knapper during an online forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We believe our side has been flexible up until now and we are looking for some flexibility on the part of the Korean side too.”

He added that the leaders of the two countries had spoken recently and would continue to look for ways to sit down and talk, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic made face-to-face talks between the negotiating teams tough. 

As to where the negotiations were at, he refused to disclose details.

Despite seven rounds of talks since September toward renewal of the Special Measures Agreement, the pact that governs the upkeep of the roughly 28,500-strong US Forces Korea, the two sides failed to hammer out a deal, largely due to differences over the amount that Seoul should pay.

US President Donald Trump has rejected the 13 percent hike offered by Seoul, saying it was not “equitable and fair.” Trump has been adamant that allies of the US should contribute more to their own defense, and he initially demanded a fivefold increase from South Korea to about $5 billion per year.

But Seoul is showing no signs of coming up with a fresh offer at this time, with President Moon Jae-in reportedly having resolved not to budge. With no noticeable progress since April, the negotiations are expected to drag on further, causing concern about US military readiness on the Korean Peninsula in the event of any conflict with Pyongyang.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Kang and her counterpart US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talked over the phone, discussing outstanding issues between the two allies. They also exchanged opinions on the defense cost-sharing negotiations, but no breakthrough was made, according to a ministry official.

The standoff between the two allies over the renewal of the SMA, which expired late last year, has put 4,000 South Korean USFK employees out of work since April because no new pact is in place.

Earlier this week, the National Assembly passed a special law authorizing South Korea to provide financial aid to the furloughed workers in advance of any deal.

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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