Top S. Korean negotiator eyes early conclusion of defense cost talks with U.S.

SEOUL, South Korea's top negotiator in defense cost-sharing talks with the United States pledged Monday to strive for the early conclusion of the negotiations amid growing concerns about potential furloughs for Korean employees in the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

Jeong Eun-bo made the remarks before departing for Los Angeles to hold the seventh round of negotiations this week on how much Seoul should pay this year and beyond for stationing the 28,500-strong USFK.

Jeong and his U.S. counterpart, James DeHart, will meet on Tuesday and Wednesday as some 9,000 Korean workers are facing unpaid leave, which would begin on April 1 absent a new cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement (SMA).

"Though there are still gaps between South Korea and the U.S., I will make efforts to strengthen the bilateral alliance and combined defense posture, and especially help foster the stable working conditions for the Korean workers in the USFK by making mutual efforts for win-win results," Jeong told reporters.

"Though there has been a two-month hiatus in the negotiations, the two countries' negotiation chiefs have been communicating with each other. Based on what we have communicated so far, I will make efforts for the early conclusion of the negotiations," he added.

The USFK has repeatedly notified the workers that they could be placed in temporary "nonduty and nonpay" status due to the absence of the SMA -- in an apparent move to pressure Seoul to make concessions in the stalemated negotiations.

Since last September, the two countries have held six rounds of SMA talks, including the last in Washington in January. But they failed to bridge differences over how much Seoul should pay this year and beyond and what should be covered by the SMA.

In the forthcoming talks, the two sides are likely to thrash out Seoul's proposal to first address the Korean staff's wage issues under a separate arrangement using the budget that Seoul has already earmarked for its financial contributions to the USFK this year.

If that arrangement is struck, Seoul hopes to incorporate it into this year's new SMA upon the negotiations' conclusion. Both the wage arrangement and the SMA are subject to parliamentary ratification.

Last year's SMA, which expired in December, called for Seoul to pay around US$870 million.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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