(LEAD) USFK commander warns of potential furlough amid delay in defense cost deal
(ATTN: RECASTS lead; UPDATES throughout)
By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, Feb. 18 (Yonhap) -- Gen. Robert Abrams, chief of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), warned Tuesday of a potential furlough of its South Korean employees, as Seoul and Washington have yet to narrow differences in their defense cost-sharing negotiations.
Abrams made the warning during a meeting with Choe Ung-sik, the head of the USFK Korean Employees Union, saying the allocated funds for their salaries will run out by the end of next month, the military said.
"Without an agreed upon Special Measures Agreement (SMA), USFK is out of money and must prepare for a potential furlough," he said.
SMA refers to the cost-sharing deal between South Korea and the United States over how much Seoul should pay this year and beyond for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong USFK. Last year's one-year SMA already expired on Dec. 31.
Since September, the two countries have held six rounds of negotiations. But they have yet to reach a deal amid Washington's demand for a sharp increase in Seoul's financial contributions to the USFK operation.
During a parliamentary session, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha dismissed speculation that Seoul and Washington have reached a deal of some sort from a broad perspective.
"It is still premature to say that," Kang said.
"There is a need to quickly resume the seventh round of negotiations, and depending on the outcome of that round of talks, I think we may be able to more clearly forecast the prospects of the conclusion of the negotiations," she added.
The minister also said that both sides shared the understanding of the need for an early conclusion of the SMA talks.
Maj. Gen. Stephen Williams, USFK chief of staff, said USFK, though not part of the negotiations, is "keenly interested in the outcome and remain hopeful for its swift conclusion."
South Korean employees are "loyal and dedicated employees who are valued and critical to USFK and a potential furlough would be a significant impact for both them and USFK," Williams said.
Last month, USFK began sending a 60-day notice of potential furloughs to its nearly 9,000 South Korean workers, saying that if staff members are furloughed, they will be placed on "temporary nonduty and nonpay status."
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