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US, South Korea Taking ‘Final Steps’ on Troop Basing Deal

South Korean protesters hold signs during a rally to oppose the joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States near the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, March 8, 2021.

A deal to maintain U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula is closer to completion, easing tensions between the United States and South Korea, which rose after the previous deal expired in 2019.

The Pentagon confirmed Monday that negotiators from Washington and Seoul are “pursuing the final steps” of a new “Special Measures Agreement” that outlines how the two countries will share the cost for the approximately 28,500 U.S troops stationed in South Korea.

Pentagon 'pleased'

"We're pleased,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Monday when asked about the tentative deal. "The proposed agreement reaffirms that the United States-Republic of Korea alliance is the linchpin of peace, security and prosperity for Northeast Asia and a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

He added, “I think the effort that we've applied into this process just reaffirms what (Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin) has said many times about the importance of alliances and partnerships, particularly in that part of the world.”

Word of an agreement in principle on a new, six-year "Special Measures Agreement" first broke Sunday.

Precise terms of the agreement have yet to be announced, but the State Department said it does include a “meaningful increase” in South Korea’s contributions.

Stalled talks

Earlier negotiations between Washington and Seoul stalled after former U.S. President Donald Trump rejected South Korea’s offer to increase its payments by 13% a year, from $920 million to about $1 billion.

State Department spokesman Ned Price indicated Monday those talks took a new, less demanding tone under President Joe Biden.

“The South Koreans are our allies,” Price said, rejecting the idea of presenting Seoul with a list of demands.

“I don’t think that would help to strengthen the underlying alliance,” he said. “We have engaged in good faith, constructive negotiations.”

The deal must still be approved by South Korean lawmakers.

Seoul first began paying for the U.S. troop presence in the early 1990s.

U.S. troops have been stationed In South Korea to help protect Seoul from North Korea since the 1953 armistice that ended fighting in the Korean War.

Information from Reuters was used in this report.