Furlough begins for Korean USFK employees

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Furlough begins for Korean USFK employees

Thousands of Korean workers employed by the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) are facing unpaid leave for an indefinite period of time starting Wednesday, in an unprecedented move, as Seoul and Washington have yet to seal a new bilateral defense cost-sharing deal.

The USFK last week issued final notices to some 4,500 Korean employees that they would be furloughed starting April 1, around half the total number of Korean personnel working for the American military.

Jeong Eun-bo, Korea’s top negotiator for the cost-sharing deal, confirmed Tuesday that a portion of Korean personnel will be furloughed as scheduled and expressed his “regret” to these workers and their families.

“The Korean government has made various efforts to prevent the implementation of a furlough during the negotiation process,” said Jeong, including proposing a memorandum of understanding in February to settle the wages of Korean workers first.

The Korean government, he added, “will provide necessary support to minimize the damages on the UFK Korean workers and for a deal to be reached in a speedy manner.”

Jeong said that Seoul and Washington have undergone seven rounds of talks and are “in the final stages” of reaching a deal and doing its utmost “to strengthen 70 years of alliance and the combined defense posture.”

The previous 10th Special Measures Agreement (SMA) under the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, expired last year on Dec. 31, but the two sides have not yet been able to sign a new pact on Korea’s contribution toward the upkeep of some 28,500 U.S. troops on the peninsula.

Since February, the USFK has warned that Korean personnel will be furloughed unless a new defense cost-sharing deal is reached. The final notice issued on March 25 said that the furlough, effective April 1, will last until further notice and that furloughed personnel “will be in a non-pay, non-duty status.” They are not permitted to serve as unpaid volunteers, must remain away from the workplace and are “prohibited from performing any work-related duties.”

Seoul and Washington kicked off negotiations for their 11th SMA last September, but Jeong and his U.S. counterpart, James DeHart, were not able to reach a breakthrough after their latest round of talks from March 17 to 20 in Los Angeles. According to Jeong, Seoul proposed that a separate arrangement be struck first to ensure that the Korean employees of the USFK can be paid their wages, but Washington rejected it over concerns that such a deal could further delay the negotiations for a comprehensive SMA.

Jeong has been undergoing self-quarantine following his visit to the United States, but has been trying to work out a separate last-minute arrangement to prevent the furlough. There are some 9,000 Korean employees of the USFK, and furloughing around half of them could disrupt the American military’s day-to-day operations and defense posture.

While Washington has slightly lowered its demand for a nearly fivefold increase in Korea’s contribution, it is still reportedly calling for about $4 billion. Seoul is calling for an increase of about 10 percent.

For the 10th SMA, Seoul agreed to pay around 1.04 trillion won, which amounted to some $920 million at the time of implementation in March 2019, and 8.2 percent more than what it spent the previous year. The two countries have conducted routine negotiations since 1991 to decide Korea’s financial contribution to the non-personnel costs associated with keeping U.S. troops in the country.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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