Seoul, Washington fail to agree on cost of US troops; US 'not focused on' US$5 billion demand

US negotiator for defence cost-sharing James DeHart (right), meets reporters after holding Special Measures Agreement talks with South Korean counterparts in Seoul on Dec 18, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea and the United States failed on Wednesday (Dec 18) to agree on Seoul's contribution towards hosting some 28,500 US troops, but the US side hinted after the two days of talks ended that it will no longer stick to its US$5 billion (S$6.78 billion) demand.

No deal by Dec 31, when the current agreement expires, may result in a repeat of last year when the two countries missed a year-end deadline but reached a retroactive deal in the new year. The two sides next meet in January in the United States.

US President Donald Trump has accused South Korea of being a rich nation that is profiting off the US military forces, which are stationed in the country as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War and continued threats from North Korea.

South Korean lawmakers have said Washington is seeking up to US$5 billion a year to support the troops - more than five times the amount Seoul agreed to pay this year.

But the United States' chief negotiator James DeHart told reporters after Wednesday's meeting that "(US$5 billion) is not a number we are currently focused on in the negotiations... when we reach an agreement, we will be in a position to explain that number and how we got there".

"We have been listening, we have been adjusting and we have been compromising, and we know that agreement... when we reach the agreement, the figure will be different from our initial proposal and probably different from what we've heard from the Korean side so far," he added.

Some US and Korean experts say no deal could throw the future of the US presence in South Korea into doubt.

Asked whether there is a deadline for further discussions, Mr DeHart said he didn't have a single date in mind but added that both sides "will be working very energetically in the New Year and January to try to get it done".

South Korea's Foreign Ministry said its negotiating team led by Jeong Eun-bo emphasised the need for "fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable agreements" that will strengthen the alliance.

The dispute is a rare public sign of discord in the alliance that has for 70 years formed a buffer against North Korean aggression.

The two Koreas remain technically at war, after the Korean War ended in a truce but not a peace treaty.

There have been public protests in South Korea against the US calls for more money, and a survey by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs found that only 4 per cent of South Korean respondents said Seoul should meet Mr Trump's demands.

On the other hand, 74 per cent said they supported the troops' long-term presence.

If no deal is reached, the most immediate effect may be on thousands of South Korean civilians who work for the US military and could be placed on unpaid leave.

As part of his "America First" policy, Mr Trump has demanded that many US allies, including Nato members and Japan, pay more towards defence.

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