South Korea envoy hopes to wrap up talks with U.S. on defence costs

FILE PHOTO: Members of South Korea and U.S. Special forces get on a CH-47 Chinook during a joint military exercise conducted by South Korean and U.S. special forces troops in Gangwon province, South Korea, November 7, 2019. Photo taken November 7, 2019. Capt. David J. Murphy/U.S. Air Force/DVIDS/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea is seeking to iron out remaining differences and sign a deal with Washington on sharing costs for stationing 28,500 American troops in the country, its chief envoy said on Thursday.

Jeong Eun-bo made the comment as he arrived in Washington for the first face-to-face talks on Friday with U.S. envoy Donna Welton since President Joe Biden's administration took office in January. They held their first video conference last month.

The negotiations had been gridlocked after former U.S. President Donald Trump rejected Seoul's offer to pay 13% more, for a total of about $1 billion a year, and demanded as much as $5 billion.

South Korean sources have raised hopes the Biden administration will agree to a deal close to their proposal. Seoul currently pays Washington about $920 million a year.

"There are issues that we are trying to resolve as much as possible through this upcoming face-to-face meeting," Jeong said in televised remarks to reporters in Washington.

Jeong said he was hoping the meeting would be the "last round of negotiations," but added further discussions might be needed.

"We will be working to strike a deal as early as we can," he added.

Both sides are "very close" to agreement, the Yonhap news agency said, citing the U.S. State Department. The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Seoul has also been pursuing a multi-year deal to head off "operational disturbances" that had arisen as the allies renew it every three five or years, Jeong said.

After the last pact expired at the end of 2019 without a new one, some 4,000 South Koreans working for the U.S. military were placed on unpaid leave, prompting the two countries to scramble for a stopgap agreement to let them return to work.

Jeong's visit comes as the Biden administration is conducting a review of its North Korea policy and Washington and Seoul are arranging the first trip to South Korea by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Japan's Kyodo News reported the two Cabinet officials would travel to Japan and South Korea from March 15 to 17, citing unnamed Tokyo officials. Seoul's presidential office said on Friday that both sides were discussing their visit but that no details had been set.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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