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Seoul, Washington hold first defense cost-sharing talks since US election

Jeong Eun-bo, South Korea`s chief negotiator for defense cost sharing with the United States, speaks via video link to his U.S. counterpart, Donna Welton, in Seoul on Monday. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Jeong Eun-bo, South Korea`s chief negotiator for defense cost sharing with the United States, speaks via video link to his U.S. counterpart, Donna Welton, in Seoul on Monday. (Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

South Korea and the US held defense cost-sharing talks for the first time since the US presidential election, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.
 
During the talks, held via a videoconference Monday evening here, Korea’s chief negotiator Jeong Eun-bo and US counterpart Donna Welton agreed to “closely work together to swiftly reach an agreement that is fair and mutually acceptable,” the ministry said. 
 
The meeting was attended by officials from Seoul’s Defense and Foreign ministries and Washington’s State and Defense departments.
 
Since Welton was tapped as the new US envoy, the two sides have been communicating through phone and email, but no meaningful progress has been made.
 
The ministry stressed that the latest session was not a new round of official talks, but part of efforts to maintain momentum in consultations during the US presidential transition period.
 
The last time Seoul and Washington held face-to-face talks on renewing the Special Measures Agreement, the pact that governs the upkeep of the roughly 28,500-strong US Forces Korea, was in March in Los Angeles, between Jeong and former negotiator James DeHart. The two sides were close to reaching a deal, but US President Donald Trump rejected what Seoul called its “best offer” of a 13 percent hike from last year’s cost-sharing accord of 1.04 trillion won ($939 million). Trump, who has consistently called for US allies to shoulder more of their defense costs, is said to have requested a 50 percent hike over the previous pact.
 
Due to the stalemate, 4,000 Korean employees of the USFK were forced to go on unpaid leave for more than two months in April, until Seoul decided to provide stopgap funding to pay their wages until the end of this year.
 
But if the allies fail to strike a new defense cost-sharing agreement, Korean employees could face another furlough next year.
 
Observers are pinning their hopes on the incoming Joe Biden administration seeking to clinch a swift defense cost-sharing deal, with a price tag close to Seoul’s offer of a 13 percent hike, as the president-elect has pledged to repair relations with US allies.
 
By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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