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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Jan. 31)

All News 07:00 January 31, 2020

USFK's furlough notices
Korean employees are not 'bargaining tool'

The U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) has begun sending notices of a potential furlough starting April 1 to some 9,000 Korean employees.

This comes amid the protracted negotiations between Seoul and Washington over how much Seoul should pay for the upkeep of some 28,500 American soldiers stationed here. So it is quite natural for some Koreans to feel that the U.S. is "taking hostages" of Koreans working at its military bases here to pressure Seoul to pay more.

The allies have held six rounds of negotiations from last year to renew the cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), but failed to reach an agreement. Diplomats here say the two sides have been narrowing their differences through these talks, but reaching a deal may take more time. The next round of SMA talks is scheduled for February in Seoul.

The USFK said in a press release that the notice to the Korean staff of a potential administrative furlough resulted from the lapse of the previous SMA at the end of last year and the continued absence of a subsequent agreement. It said if the SMA is not renewed in time, the Korean workers will be placed on "temporary nonduty and nonpay status" from April 1, adding it has offered the 60-day notice as required by U.S. law. "This action is being taken solely for reasons outside of USFK control," it said.

This is the first time for the USFK to send furlough notices to Korean employees individually because of a delay in the SMA talks. Last year, the USFK reportedly spent some 500 billion won in labor costs for its 9,000 Korean employees ― about half of the 1.03 trillion won it received from the Korean government under the previous SMA. The U.S. side reportedly demanded a fivefold increase of South Korea's payment this year in the initial stages of the ongoing SMA talks, drawing a backlash from South Koreans, but has since reduced the desired amount, according to diplomatic sources.

It is sad that USFK's Korean employees are being victimized as the SMA talks drag on. Some members of the Korean Employees Union at USFK said in media interviews that they are worried that the government may sign an unfair deal because of them.

What is best for the Korean staff ― and the governments of both countries ― is an early resolution to the cost-sharing issue. Certainly, the USFK's furlough notices are worsening Korean sentiment toward the U.S. troop presence here.

It is worrisome that the Korean employees at USFK are being used as a "bargaining tool" in the SMA talks. Even if the allies end this year's negotiations successfully, it will remain as a fundamental problem for the South Korean side. If possible, Seoul should demand Washington separate labor costs for the Korean staff from other issues in the SMA talks.

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