Nearly half of South Koreans working at US military camps here may face furloughs next month as the two countries failed to narrow their differences during the latest round of cost-sharing negotiations, which ended Thursday in the US.
“Prior to furloughs of nearly half the Korean national employees of US Forces Korea on April 1, a US negotiating team traveled to Los Angeles under extraordinary circumstances this week to meet over four days,” Yonhap News Agency quoted a State Department spokesperson as saying.
“Unfortunately, a gap remains in the understanding between the US and ROK on the value of the contribution of the American taxpayer towards the national defense of the ROK,” the spokesperson added. ROK stands for Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
Seoul’s top negotiator, Jeong Eun-bo, and his US counterpart, James DeHart, held the seventh round of talks for the 11th Special Measures Agreement from Tuesday through Thursday. The meeting was initially scheduled for two days, but was extended for another day.
“The two sides still have differences, but they agreed to have close consultations to minimize the absence of an agreement and contribute to the South Korea-US alliance and the combined defense posture through an early conclusion of a mutually acceptable agreement,” Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said in a press release.
The Korean delegation had sought to first settle the issue of wages for the Korean workers to prevent them from being placed on unpaid leave should the two sides fail to narrow their differences on the overall cost-sharing deal, but that plan didn’t work out.
The US State Department argued that separate discussions on the wage issue could distract from “expeditiously concluding a mutually acceptable and comprehensive SMA that addresses all facets of the agreement.”
The two sides didn’t announce dates for the next round of talks, but they may meet again within this month to prevent the furloughs for the Korean workers, according to diplomatic sources.
“If the US is willing to, they can pay the Korean employees from their own budget without having to hold additional talks,” a diplomatic source said.
The USFK said Thursday that it has already decided which of its Korean personnel are essential and will be excluded from the furlough plans -- those in charge of life, health, safety and military readiness.
Korea and the US have held talks for the 11th SMA since September last year, but still have differences over how much Seoul should pay for the stationing of 28,500-strong USFK.
The US has backed down from its initial demand of $5 billion, a fivefold increase over Seoul’s contribution last year, but is now said to be calling for about $4 billion. Korea insists on an increase of about 10 percent from last year’s 1.39 trillion won ($1.12 billion).
By Kim So-hyun and news reports (firstname.lastname@example.org