US official says troop-funding talks with South Korea continuing

SEOUL • A US official said troop-funding talks with South Korea are continuing, despite reports out of Seoul that a deal was near to end the impasse that has led to the unprecedented furlough of thousands of civilian Korean workers at American bases.

The Trump administration official, who asked not to be identified, said on Thursday that the United States believes South Korea can and should pay more to support the 28,000 American service personnel in the country.

On Wednesday, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported an unnamed government official in Seoul as saying the two sides had tentatively reached a multi-year, cost-sharing agreement, potentially ending months of bickering over the Trump administration's demands for a massive increase.

South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said earlier on Thursday that it had not yet reached an accord through high-level discussions with US officials.

The seven-decade-old military alliance was dealt a blow on Wednesday, when the American military put almost half of its 8,500 South Korean civilian workers on furlough due to the financing dispute.

General Robert Abrams, commander of US Forces Korea, called the furloughs "heartbreaking", saying the move was "not what we envisioned or hoped would happen".

The two sides have been deadlocked over what is known as the Special Measures Agreement, with President Donald Trump initially demanding about US$5 billion (S$7.2 billion) a year from South Korea to pay for US security.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in's administration has said it would not pay much more than the almost US$1 billion it agreed to in a one-year deal in 2019.

The funding tensions come as the US military struggles to keep coronavirus infections from disrupting operations in South Korea and elsewhere, and as the allies watch for fresh provocations from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose regime test-launched nine short-range ballistic missiles in March.

South Korea's National Assembly must sign off on any deal and Mr Trump's demands have brought about a rare moment of unity from progressives and conservatives in the country who see them as unreasonable. With parliamentary elections set for April 15, siding with Washington could lead to defeat at the ballot box.

The South Korea talks could also affect other US allies hosting troops, such as Japan. Tokyo is closely watching the negotiations, with the approach of talks set to begin later this year for a US-Japan cost-sharing deal.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2020, with the headline 'US official says troop-funding talks with South Korea continuing'. Print Edition | Subscribe