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US ups ante, sends furlough notice to S. Korean workers

US Forces Korea in combat training (Yonhap)
US Forces Korea in combat training (Yonhap)

The US military said it has started notifying nearly 9,000 South Koreans working for United States Forces Korea that they could be put on unpaid leave if Seoul and Washington fail to agree on cost-sharing for the upkeep of 28,500 American troops here.

“USFK began providing Korean National employees today with a 60-day notice of a potential administrative furlough that could occur on April 1, 2020,” the USFK said in a statement released Wednesday.

The USFK said it was bound by US law to deliver the notice two months in advance of the furlough date. The US military earlier provided South Korean workers with a six-month notice in October last year.

South Korea and the United States have held six rounds of talks on defense cost-sharing, but they have been unable to resolve stark differences over Washington’s demand that Seoul contribute dramatically more this year than before.

Washington has asked for $5 billion a year, five times more than what Seoul paid last year. Seoul officials have said that demand goes beyond the existing agreement’s framework.

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized South Korea for not bearing a greater burden of the entire defense cost of maintaining US soldiers in Seoul, which remains technically at war with Pyongyang, absent a peace treaty between the two countries.

Jeong Eun-bo, Seoul's top negotiator in defense cost-sharing deals with Washington, speaks to reporters on Jan. 17 after the sixth round of talks held in the US. (Yonhap)
Jeong Eun-bo, Seoul's top negotiator in defense cost-sharing deals with Washington, speaks to reporters on Jan. 17 after the sixth round of talks held in the US. (Yonhap)

“Without the Republic of Korea’s continued commitment to share the cost of employing our Korean National workforce, USFK will soon exhaust programmed funds available to pay their salaries and wages,” said the USFK.

The US military added it will host meetings across the country this week to provide South Korean workers with necessary information regarding their leave and to answer their questions.

About 70 percent of South Korea’s contribution covers salaries of the South Korean workers for their noncombat, administrative services to the US military base in Seoul.

The secretary general of the South Korean workers’ union told local media that a fully functioning USFK is not just public service but key to security in the Korean Peninsula. “Regardless of leave, we stand to work as always,” he added.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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