South Korea envoy hopes to wrap up talks with US on defence costs

Mr Jeong Eun-bo before departing Seoul for the first face-to-face talks with US envoy Donna Welton in Washington.
Mr Jeong Eun-bo before departing Seoul for the first face-to-face talks with US envoy Donna Welton in Washington.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL (REUTERS) - South Korea is seeking to iron out remaining differences and sign a deal with Washington on sharing costs for stationing 28,500 American troops in the country, its chief envoy said on Thursday (March 4).

Mr Jeong Eun-bo made the comment as he arrived in Washington for the first face-to-face talks on Friday with US envoy Donna Welton since President Joe Biden's administration took office in January. They held their first video conference last month.

The negotiations had been gridlocked after former US President Donald Trump rejected Seoul's offer to pay 13 per cent more, for a total of about US$1 billion (S$1.34 billion) a year, and demanded as much as US$5 billion.

South Korean sources have raised hopes the Biden administration will agree to a deal close to their proposal.

Seoul currently pays Washington about US$920 million a year.

"There are issues that we are trying to resolve as much as possible through this upcoming face-to-face meeting," JMr eong said in televised remarks to reporters in Washington.

Mr Jeong said he was hoping the meeting would be the "last round of negotiations," but added further discussions might be needed.

"We will be working to strike a deal as early as we can," he added.

Both sides are "very close" to agreement, the Yonhap news agency said, citing the US State Department. The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Seoul has also been pursuing a multi-year deal to head off "operational disturbances" that had arisen as the allies renew it every three five or years, Jeong said.

After the last pact expired at the end of 2019 without a new one, some 4,000 South Koreans working for the US military were placed on unpaid leave, prompting the two countries to scramble for a stopgap agreement to let them return to work.

Mr Jeong's visit comes as the Biden administration is conducting a review of its North Korea policy and Washington and Seoul are arranging the first trip to South Korea by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Japan's Kyodo News reported the two Cabinet officials would travel to Japan and South Korea from March 15 to 17, citing unnamed Tokyo officials.

Seoul's presidential office said on Friday that both sides were discussing their visit but that no details had been set.