April 02, 2020 09:53
Korea and the U.S. are in last-minute talks about the upkeep of American troops here after Washington put thousands of Korean staff on unpaid leave.
"It seems that there's progress in the cost-sharing negotiations," a senior Cheong Wa Dae official told reporters on Wednesday, but "talks are still underway."
The U.S. is demanding in exorbitant hike in Korea's share of the cost of keeping 28,500 American troops here.
The two sides have reportedly agreed tentatively that any deal they reach will be valid for five years instead of one, and that Seoul's share will increase by 10 to 20 percent from last year's W1.04 trillion to approximately US$1.1 billion (US$1=W1,232). This is a far smaller than the $5 billion the U.S. demanded when the negotiations kicked off last September.
But it is unclear whether U.S. President Donald Trump will approve the deal in an election year since he has been boasting about his prowess in extorting money from the U.S.' allies, especially Korea. The U.S. could also force Korea, already a captive market, to buy still more American weapons. The option was mooted in Los Angeles on March 17-18 and follow-up talks.
Despite prospects of a deal, some 4,000 or about half of the Korean employees of the U.S. Forces Korea, were put on leave without pay on Wednesday.
USFK Commander Gen. Robert Abrams said Tuesday." This is an unfortunate day for us... it's unthinkable... it's heartbreaking. The partial furlough of [Korean] employees is not what we envisioned or hoped what would happen." "We will continue to emphasize the need" for a deal to both governments, he added.
Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said, "We're seeking to help USFK Korean employees with the government budget by making a special law as soon as possible. We'll try to work out solutions like emergency loans for living expenses."
The drastic measure comes at a time when Korea's public resources are already stretched to breaking point by the coronavirus epidemic. Uncertainty reigned at Cheong Wa Dae and the Foreign Ministry, where officials variously leaked optimistic and pessimistic views.
In early February, the two sides almost agreed to hike Seoul's share at about $1 billion, but Trump nixed the deal. There is speculation that Trump had not been briefed properly as he was floundering in the fight against COVID-19.
Trump has no idea what the actual figures are and sees the value of the alliance purely in business terms, claiming at one stage, "[Korea] is costing us $5 billion a year. And they pay -- they were paying about $500 million for $5 billion worth of protection."
But Korea seems to have averted the prospect of another one-year deal that could replicate the same uncertainty next year if Trump is re-elected. It also seems to have fended off demands for contributions to other defense costs outside the Korean Peninsula, which is not in the existing Special Measures Agreement that governs the forces' upkeep.
The U.S. State Department mooted sharing the costs for moving U.S. military equipment from the U.S. mainland for rotational deployment to Korea.
If Trump approves the tentative deal, it will be possible for the two sides to make a draft agreement and initial it about 10 days later. Once the deal is struck, the Korean government will have the bill ratified by the National Assembly before the term of the current National Assembly expires on May 29.
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