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Seoul, Washington close to striking defense cost-sharing deal

US Army base in Daegu (Yonhap)
US Army base in Daegu (Yonhap)

South Korea and the US are inching toward a conclusion to their stalled negotiations on the defense cost-sharing agreement that governs the 28,500 US troops stationed here, according to media reports.

The two countries could be “just weeks away” from clinching a deal, CNN reported last week, citing multiple sources. The deal would likely be a multiyear agreement that increases Korea’s contribution by 13 percent from the previous accord -- the same figure Seoul suggested as its “best offer” last year. 

The report added that the final agreement, known as the Special Measures Agreement, could include “mandated increases in South Korea’s defense budget,” as well as Seoul purchasing certain military equipment.

A Foreign Ministry official on Monday declined to confirm details on the ongoing negotiations or say when a deal would be reached, but added that the allies were working together to reach an agreement at an early date.

The US Department of State said the two sides are “making progress” and are committed to expeditiously concluding the deal, according to Yonhap News Agency.

The drawn-out negotiations toward the renewal of the SMA, the pact that governs the upkeep of US Forces Korea, put a strain on the long-standing alliance during the Trump administration. Despite multiple rounds of talks since September 2019, the two sides failed to clinch a deal, largely due to differences over the amount that Seoul should shoulder amid former President Donald Trump’s demand for a hefty hike.

Last year the two sides were close to signing a new deal when Seoul offered a 13 percent hike from the previous 2019 accord, when it paid 1.04 trillion won ($919.1 million), but Trump turned down the offer and reportedly demanded a 50 percent increase.

With the last one-year deal having already expired at the end of 2019, some 4,000 Korean employees of USFK were forced to go on unpaid leave for more than two months starting in April. Seoul decided to provide stopgap funding to pay their wages. If the two sides fail to strike a new agreement, Korean employees could face another furlough this year.

Earlier this month the two countries’ top negotiators held a videoconference, their first talks since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, with both sides vowing to work out a mutually acceptable agreement as soon as possible.

Observers say the two sides will promptly strike a deal under the new US administration, which has pledged to restore alliances, in a move to jointly tackle more pressing challenges in the region.

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