(ATTN: ADDS defense ministry's announcement in paras 17-18; RESTRUCTURES)
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 furloughs have 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 United States 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.
"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.
Salaries of about 9,000 workers are covered by the agreement.
In a notice sent to the workers subject to the unpaid leave last week, the U.S. Department of the Army said the furloughs would be in effect until further notice.
It is the first time that such a measure has been implemented since the establishment of the command in 1957.
Those who continue to work in areas of life, health, safety and other essential services will be paid by the U.S. government, as the Pentagon earlier pledged.
Calling the situation "unfortunate," "unthinkable" and "heartbreaking," Abrams pledged to support the workers and to continue emphasizing to both the U.S. and South Korean governments the need for a deal to end the furloughs.
"While this is an unfortunate situation and we will miss them dearly, we will work to minimize the impact on our 'fight tonight' posture despite the strenuous circumstances," Abrams said, calling the workers "vital to our mission and the Korea-U.S. alliance.
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 U.S. 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.
The USFK Korean Employees Union called for rapid normalization of the situation in a news conference held in front of the U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul, on Wednesday, estimating about 4,000 of its 8,600 members have gone on unpaid leave.
"The livelihoods of (Korean) workers have been hit hard by the collapse of the talks with the U.S., particularly at a time when it is difficult to find day labor or part-time jobs due to the new coronavirus outbreak. This will also have a clear impact on the local economy around U.S. bases," the union said.
It continued, "The U.S.' unreasonable demand for Korea's increased share of the defense costs is to abandon the bilateral alliance and will trample the noble spirit of the USFK and its workers practicing a pure Korean-U.S. alliance."
It urged the Seoul government to request for thorough reform of the system in negotiations to prevent recurrence of the situation.
Seoul's defense ministry also voiced regret over the forced furloughs and vowed to come up with support measures for the affected workers by enacting a special law, such as extending emergency loans.
It also vowed close consultations with the U.S. to maintain a combined readiness posture.
While expressing regret over the planned furloughs, negotiator Jeong said Tuesday the two countries have considerably narrowed differences and expect the final conclusion of the negotiations in the near future.
On Wednesday, a diplomatic source also noted that the allies could announce a deal as early as later in the day, as they have reached "the stage of putting the finishing touches on the negotiations."
The U.S. has reportedly 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 an 8.2 percent increase.
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