The U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) on Wednesday announced it would put all its Korean employees on a two-month furlough without pay starting in April if Seoul and Washington fail to reach a military cost-sharing agreement by that time.
The measure, which puts at risk the livelihoods of around 9,200 Korean citizens employed by the USFK, cranks up pressure on the Korean government to agree to a major hike in its contribution to the military alliance with the United States.
Due to the ending of the 2019 Special Measures Agreement (SMA) and the absence of an agreement for 2020, the USFK said in a press release that it began issuing 60-day prior notices to its Korean workers starting Wednesday on the possibility they may be subject to a furlough if no deal is reached by April 1.
“Without the Republic of Korea’s continued commitment to share the cost of employing our Korean National workforce, USFK will soon exhaust programmed funds available to pay their salaries and wages,” said the release, using South Korea’s official name.
“Unfortunately, without an agreed upon SMA, USFK must provide furlough letters as required by U.S. law as we prepare for a potential furlough.”
The SMA, which is renegotiated between the allies every year, determines Korea’s contributions to the non-personnel costs related to the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed on its soil.
For months now, the allies have been at loggerheads over the Donald Trump administration’s reported demand that Seoul pay upwards of $5 billion toward the upkeep of the USFK - an almost fivefold increase from last year’s payment of $930 million.
Per last year’s SMA, which expired on Dec. 31, the Korean government covered more than 70 percent of the 9,200 Korean workers’ annual salaries, with the rest paid for by the United States.
Last Friday, Camp Humphreys - the U.S. military base in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi - posted on its Facebook page that there could be potential “delays to installation services” at the base due to “austerity measures” stemming from the SMA lapse.
With the USFK’s announcement that its funds to pay Korean workers are running out, the two sides must reach a compromise on 2020’s SMA in February if the Korean government hopes to ratify the deal in the current National Assembly before an April 15 general election.
Calling the USFK’s warning of an unpaid furlough for its Korean employees “unprecedented,” Son Ji-o, a leader of the labor union representing the workers, said the employees would continue to work past the April deadline regardless of whether they are paid, given that maintenance of the base is a “matter directly linked to the security of the Korean Peninsula.”
The most recent round of SMA negotiations took place in Washington on Jan. 14 to 15, and the two sides were able to “narrow the gap” between their initial positions, according to the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Sources familiar with the talks say negotiators may be close to reaching a deal where Korea’s cost burden is raised by approximately 10 percent - in step with the increase in its defense spending this year.
It remains unclear, however, whether such terms would be accepted by Trump, who has repeatedly voiced his doubts on the effectiveness of the U.S. forces’ presence in Korea relative to the cost to U.S. taxpayers.
Yet there has also been significant pushback on Trump’s pressure-based approach toward U.S. allies within Washington.
In a hearing Tuesday, Rep. Adam Smith, a Democrat and chair of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, noted the demands posed “jeopardy” to the U.S. alliance with Korea.
He said, “We are not just there to protect South Korea. Our interests in stability in the region are paramount so I hope that we’ll consider that when we look at what South Korea pays and how it matches up against our interests.”