By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, May 1 (Yonhap) -- A newly enacted law providing financial support for furloughed South Koreans employees with the U.S. Forces Korea would strengthen the hands of South Korean negotiators in defense cost sharing talks with the United States, a defense ministry official said Friday.
Around 4,000 employees were placed on unpaid leave starting April 1 amid the protracted stalemate in a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that stipulates how much Seoul would pay for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong USFK.
On Wednesday night, the National Assembly unanimously passed the special law to help make up for their lost incomes by providing relief funds of around 1.8 million won (US$1476.6) to 1.98 million won per month per employee, around 60 percent of their average monthly wages.
"The bill was passed unanimously by 185 lawmakers who were present at the plenary session, which is quite exceptional," the official told reporters. "We think this is aimed at empowering (our negotiation team) in the ongoing talks."
The move came after the U.S. rejected South Korea's proposal to conclude a separate agreement to first address the wage issue. That sparked criticism that Washington is taking advantage of the plight of innocent local USFK employees as a negotiating tactic to pressure Seoul.
Officials said the funds for USFK employees will be coming from the state employment insurance program and then be deducted from South Korea's contribution to be determined in the defense cost talks. Seoul notified the U.S. of the plan and has been waiting for its response, they added.
The defense cost negotiations have been stalled since U.S. President Donald Trump rejected Seoul's offer as insufficient. South Korea had reportedly offered to pay at least 13 percent more than last year's contribution.
According to a Reuters report Wednesday, Trump said South Korea has agreed to pay more. But the presidential office here said the negotiations are still going on and declined to comment further.
The U.S. initially demanded a more than fivefold increase in Seoul's contributions to US$5 billion.
The indefinite furloughs are feared to have disrupted day-to-day USFK operations and affected the allies' combined readiness posture.
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