‘Difficult’ negotiations lie ahead for defense cost sharing deal with U.S.: envoy

SEOUL, The negotiations to renew South Korea and the United States' deal on defense cost sharing are likely to be a "difficult" path, the top South Korean negotiator said Monday following the inaugural round of talks last week.

The allies kicked off the first round of the talks in Honolulu, Hawaii, last Wednesday to renew their five-year Special Measures Agreement governing Seoul's share of the upkeep of the 28,500 American forces stationed in South Korea for defense against the North.

In the three-day "exploratory" talks last week, the two sides discussed at the "rudimentary level" the contributions each has made to the development of the South Korea-U.S. alliance and the positions they have over the next defense cost sharing deal, a senior government official said in a background briefing.

"Both sides shared the understanding that the current negotiations should be led in a way that intensifies the combined defense posture and further develops the South Korea-U.S. alliance," the official said.

He noted they are likely to be "difficult negotiations," adding that the allies may take several rounds of talks to reach a new agreement. His comments hint that the allies had wide differences as they entered into the negotiations, especially after President Donald Trump's repeated call to raise South Korea's share of the defense financing.

The two sides also agreed to hold the second round of negotiations in the second week of April in South Korea, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. They also committed to lead their negotiations in consideration of the South Korean government's budgeting schedule for next year, he added.

Since 1991, the allies have shared the costs of maintaining the U.S. Forces Korea by renewing the deal every few years.

The current five-year deal expires at the end of 2018. Seoul's contribution has increased to around 960 billion won ($901 million) this year from some 150 billion won in 1991.

In the ongoing negotiations, Chang Won-sam, ambassador for the defense cost sharing deal, represents South Korea, and Timothy Betts, deputy assistant secretary for plans, programs and operations at the U.S. State Department, represents the United States.

The negotiations revolve around three key subjects: costs, duration of the deal and improvement of the deal's system. Asked which of the three subjects posed the most difficulties, the official said, "all of them are intertwined."

Also asked whether the U.S. side drew on whether it would charge South Korea for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, which was deployed here last year, the official neither confirmed nor denied, saying, "I will leave it up to your judgment."

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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