Top U.S. negotiator in defense cost talks visits S. Korea

SEOUL-- The top U.S. negotiator in defense cost-sharing talks with South Korea arrived in Seoul on Tuesday on a trip that a Seoul official said appears aimed at gauging public sentiment over the allies' hardball negotiations.

During his stay until Friday, James DeHart of the State Department is expected to have an unofficial dinner meeting with foreign ministry officials, meet journalists and hold talks with members of the National Assembly, a foreign ministry official here said.

"Very good to be here this week," DeHart told reporters upon arriving at Incheon International Airport, while refusing to comment on the U.S.' demand for a hefty rise in Seoul's share of the cost for stationing the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea (USFK).

DeHart will not engage in any negotiations this week over how much Seoul should pay for the upkeep of the USFK under the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), a cost-sharing deal, though the allies' negotiation teams are set to meet in Seoul later this month, a foreign ministry official added.

"It seems that he will visit Korea to gauge sentiment in Seoul on his own, and we expect that this will be an opportunity for him to get a first-hand look at what we have always described as a reasonable and equitable cost-sharing," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The delegations of the two countries held their last SMA negotiations in Honolulu last month. There appears to have been little progress yet in narrowing their gaps amid Washington's call for a hefty rise in Seoul's financial contributions for the stationing of USFK.

Under the 10th SMA, struck in February and valid until year's end, South Korea agreed to pay $870 million this year. Reports say the U.S. wants South Korea to pay $5 billion in the ongoing negotiations.

Since 1991, Seoul has shouldered partial costs under the SMA -- for Korean civilians hired by the USFK, the construction of military facilities to maintain the allies' readiness and other forms of support.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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