S. Korea, U.S. struggle to strike deal on USFK cost

By Lee Chi-dong

WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States remain apart over how much Seoul will contribute for the cost of keeping American troops on the peninsula, South Korea's top negotiator said Thursday.

"There are still big differences in the positions of the two sides," Hwang Joon-kook, special ambassador for the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) talks, told reporters after two-day talks here with his U.S. counterpart, Eric John.

The allies are currently focusing not only on Seoul's appropriate share itself for the stationing of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) but also on ways to improve the overall system for splitting the cost, according to Hwang.

The allies have shared the cost of USFK under SMA since 1991. The previous agreement, signed in 2009, expires at the end of this year.

Setting the level of South Korea's contributions has always been controversial, especially in the ideologically divided nation.

Hwang said his government agrees to the need for overhauling the way it shares the cost for USFK.

South Korea has put forward a set of proposals aimed at enhancing the transparency of defense-cost sharing and providing a more stable supply of resources for USFK, said Hwang.

He refused to provide details, saying negotiations are under way.

The veteran diplomat, who served as minister at the South Korean Embassy in Washington, said Seoul hopes to complete the talks by the end of October, given the time needed for parliamentary approval. The existing accord expires at the end of this year.

"The U.S. supports the push for an early deal. But the results of the negotiations are more important than such a timeline," he said. "It's important to produce a reasonable deal that can convince (South Korean) people to back it."

He dismissed a view that the SMA talks may be affected by Seoul's efforts to postpone the timing of taking over wartime operational control (OPCON) of its troops from Washington. Currently, the OPCON transfer is set for December 2015.

There has been media-driven speculation that South Korea may be forced to sharply raise its share for the operation of USFK in return for a further delay in OPCON transition.

"The South Korean government's position is that the SMA talks have nothing to do with the OPCON issue," he said.

This week's round of negotiations was the fourth of its kind aimed at deciding the amount and method of Seoul's contributions over the coming years.

The two sides plan to hold the next round in Seoul in early October.

Multiple sources said South Korea has offered to keep the current yearly payment level -- some 870 billion won (US$808 million) -- while the U.S. has requested an increase to 1 trillion won.

The U.S. is confronted with federal budget problems as well as growing North Korean threats.

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