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USFK workers go on unpaid leave as final deal pending

South Korean national employees working for USFK stage a protest in front of its headquarters at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province on April 1. About 4,000 Koreans working for USFK are put on unpaid leave due to prolonged negotiations for the upkeep of 28,500 American troops. (Yonhap)
South Korean national employees working for USFK stage a protest in front of its headquarters at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province on April 1. About 4,000 Koreans working for USFK are put on unpaid leave due to prolonged negotiations for the upkeep of 28,500 American troops. (Yonhap)

Nearly half of Koreans working at US military camps here went on indefinite, unpaid leave Wednesday, taken hostage by drawn-out negotiations between South Korea and the United States on how to share costs for the upkeep of 28,500 American troops.

Seoul, while expressing regrets over the furloughs, hurried to roll out support measures for the workers. Cheong Wa Dae said the two sides had made some progress recently.

Earlier in the day, local news outlets reported, citing an unnamed source familiar with the situation, that a deal was imminent, pending presidential approval. The office, however, denied the report, saying negotiations were still ongoing.

According to the source, Seoul would annually pay roughly 10 percent more than the 1.04 trillion won ($851 million) it paid last year until 2024. Washington had initially demanded up to $5 billion a year from Seoul for United States Forces Korea.

Korea also would not have to renegotiate the terms for another five years, as it had hoped so in order to suppress a dramatic hike in the total cost over the coming years. The US had earlier asked for a one-year renewable contract, as the previous arrangement had been.

The cost-sharing negotiations had dragged on since September, with Korea insisting on lowering the $5 billion the US had been reluctant to cut down throughout much of the prolonged negotiations.

The two sides, however, seem to have bridged the gap shortly after President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump exchanged a phone call last week, during which Moon offered to send much needed medical equipment Trump requested to counter the coronavirus pandemic.

Delays in finalizing the deal prompted USFK to put its 4,000 Korean workers on unpaid leave starting April 1. The US commenced a furlough of nonessential personnel, after having rejected Korea’s offer to deal with their jobs through a side negotiation.

“Today, approximately half of the USFK Korean National employee workforce has been furloughed due to a lapse in the Special Measures Agreement,” USFK Commander Gen. Robert Abrams said in a message to the furloughed employees.

The South Korean government will deliver those employees every support needed, Seoul officials said.

Seoul’s Defense Ministry holds an emergency briefing on April 1 to unveil support measures for the Korean workers USFK put on unpaid leave. (The Ministry of National Defense)
Seoul’s Defense Ministry holds an emergency briefing on April 1 to unveil support measures for the Korean workers USFK put on unpaid leave. (The Ministry of National Defense)

“We will work with the National Assembly to introduce legislation that would compensate those workers from our government budget,” said Choi Hyun-soo, spokesperson of Seoul’s Defense Ministry, at an emergency briefing Monday.

The ministry said the developing circumstances would not affect the readiness of ROK-US combined forces. USFK Commander Gen. Robert Abrams concurred, saying the “fight tonight” posture remained committed.

Once agreed upon, the deal is expected to pass through Seoul’s National Assembly for approval by May at the latest, before a new parliament convenes with fresh members chosen in the general elections in mid-April.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)

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