U.S. foreign, defense chiefs may visit S. Korea this month: sources

SEOUL, March 4 (Yonhap) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are expected to visit South Korea this month, sources familiar with the matter said Thursday, amid growing hope for a long-delayed defense cost-sharing deal.

If made, it will be the first visit to South Korea by senior officials of the Biden administration.

“We are working on their possible two-day visit starting on March 18, though the exact schedule is yet to be confirmed,” a source said.

Another source said that consultations are under way between Seoul and Washington for high-level meetings, and the two governments will make an announcement after details are fixed.

Japan’s Kyodo News reported on the day that Blinken and Austin are preparing for a three-day visit to Japan starting on March 15 for security talks with their Japanese counterparts.

During the possible visit to Seoul, they are expected to discuss pending alliance issues with Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defense Minister Suh Wok and could announce the conclusion of the bilateral defense cost-sharing deal.

Negotiations are under way for a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that stipulates how much Seoul will pay for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). The last SMA deal expired at the end of 2019.

On Wednesday, a State Department official said the two sides “are very close to reaching agreement.” A new round of talks is to be held in Washington this week.

Under the Trump administration, the United States demanded a 50 percent increase from the previous deal, saying Seoul should pay more for its defense. South Korea has offered a maximum 13 percent raise.