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USFK begins indefinite furloughs for Korean employees over stalled cost-sharing talks

All News 06:00 April 01, 2020

By Oh Seok-min

SEOUL, April 1 (Yonhap) -- Thousands of South Koreans working for the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) were furloughed indefinitely starting Wednesday amid a deadlock in defense cost-sharing negotiations between the two countries, sparking concerns over the possible impact on Korea's readiness posture.

The furlough has also drawn criticism that Washington is risking the livelihoods of South Koreans who have worked many years for the USFK for the sake of its own financial interests and to pressure its ally in the defense cost talks.

South Korea and the U.S. have failed to bridge differences over a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that stipulates how much Seoul would pay for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong USFK.

"Just as the U.S. has long said, the furloughs begin on April 1 as planned," a USFK official said.

Around half of about 9,000 workers whose salaries are covered by the agreement will be affected, he added.

The U.S. Department of the Army notified the USFK workers subject to the unpaid leave last week, saying, "You were reached for furloughs as there were no remaining funded positions in your competitive area to which you have a placement right."

It added the furlough would be in effect until further notice.

Those who continue to work in areas of life, health, safety and other essential services will get paid by the U.S. government, as the Pentagon earlier pledged.

Choe Ung-sik, head of the labor union of South Korean employees for the U.S. Forces Korea, has his head shaved in protest over potential furloughs during a rally in Seoul on March 20, 2020. (Yonhap)

"The USFK community relies heavily on our installations for quality of life services, and the potential furlough will have more than just a negative impact on military operations and readiness," USFK Commander Gen. Robert Abrams said during a town hall with its population in late February.

The impact may be worse as installation services have already been partially halted and soldiers' off-installation travel has been restricted due to the COVID-19 virus.

During the latest and seventh round of talks last month, South Korea proposed concluding a separate agreement to first address the wage issue, but the United States rejected the idea over concerns that such a move could further delay a comprehensive deal, Seoul's top negotiator Jeong Eun-bo has said.

Critics said the U.S. has been using the issue as leverage in the negotiations.

On Tuesday, Jeong expressed regrets over the furloughs, and called on Washington to strive for their swift return to work.

The negotiator then noted, "Given that the countries have considerably narrowed differences, we expect the final conclusion of the negotiations in the near future."

The U.S. reportedly has demanded a hefty increase in Seoul's financial contribution, while Seoul appears to have expressed its willingness to pay more than its earlier proposal of an approximate 10 percent increase.

The previous one-year SMA expired at the end of 2019. Under the deal, South Korea agreed on a 8.2 percent increase.

Seoul's top negotiator Jeong Eun-bo (L) and his U.S. counterpart, James DeHart, pose for a photo prior to the start of their two-day negotiations in Los Angeles on March 17, 2020, in this photo provided by the foreign ministry. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

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