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South Korea troop-funding dispute unresolved, US official says

People walk beneath posters for South Korea's upcoming general elections scheduled to be held on April 15, along the Cheonggye stream in Seoul on April 2, 2020. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

A U.S. 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 to discuss the matter said Thursday that the U.S. believes South Korea can and should pay more to support the some 28,000 American service personnel in the country.

On Wednesday, Yonhap News Agency of South Korea reported an unidentified 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 Thursday it had not yet reached an accord through high-level discussions with U.S. officials.

The seven-decades-old military alliance was dealt a blow Wednesday when the American military put almost half of its 8,500 South Korean civilian workers on furlough because of the financing dispute. Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, called the furloughs “heartbreaking,” saying in a statement the move was “not what we envisioned or hoped what would happen.”

The two sides have been deadlocked over what’s known as the Special Measures Agreement, with President Donald Trump initially demanding about $5 billion a year from South Korea to pay for U.S. security. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has indicated that it wouldn’t pay much more than the almost $1 billion it agreed to in a one-year deal in 2019.

The tensions over funding comes as the U.S. military struggles to keep coronavirus outbreaks from disrupting operations in South Korea and elsewhere and the allies watch for fresh provocations from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose regime test-launched nine short-range ballistic missiles in March — a record for it in a month.

South Korea’s National Assembly must sign off on any deal and 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.


© 2020 Bloomberg News

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