ROK-U.S. News

Shut the door on the North’s cyberarmy

Expect North Korean hackers to go after critical infrastructure throughout Asia

The Japan Times  |  BY BRIAN MOORE

Several times last month North Korea launched a handful of short-range ballistic missiles in defiance of the international community. Each time was barely a blip in a news cycle dominated by the global pandemic, but it serves as a reminder that North Korean belligerence is alive and well, and that 2020 likely has not seen the extent of the bag of tricks meant to draw the attention of the global community and to earn cash for the endlessly destitute regime.

In 2017, I argued that Pyongyang was proving that cybercrime pays when you have nothing to lose, and outlined how Kim Jong Un, who rules over a country that still experiences rolling blackouts and chronic oil shortages, has utilized the country’s best and brightest and developed a world class hacker army. Their successes include the WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017 that crippled hundreds of thousands of computers in more than 150 countries, and the cyberheist of Bangladesh’s central bank that netted more than $80 million.

If trends continue — and nothing suggests that Kim would deviate from such lucrative methods — expect North Korean hackers to go after critical infrastructure throughout Asia, particularly as new and vulnerable technologies are introduced to the region.

Enter floating nuclear power plants (FNPP). Asia, and Southeast Asia in particular, is set to see the rollout of FNPPs over the next two decades. Small modular reactors (SMR) — reactors that are portable and much smaller than conventional units — in combination with growing demand for low-carbon power to battle climate change, are seen as a viable energy technology for many countries in the region.

At a recent conference on nuclear security in the Asia-Pacific region hosted by Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based think tank, experts highlighted several reasons why a country would deploy SMRs on a barge or platform offshore; including their small size, their ability to be placed offshore in countries that lack necessary geography for conventional plants, their energy output scalability and reduced capital investment. Additionally, as the majority of Southeast Asian populations live within proximity of the ocean, FNPPs offer the ability to connect distant and remote populations to an energy grid. The U.S. Department of Energy echoes these advantages.

But with the potential rollout of FNPPs across the region, which will share the same cybersecurity vulnerabilities as conventional plants, comes the specter of computer intrusion; and unlike the physical security of nuclear materials and facilities, which has seen unprecedented progress over the last decade, cybersecurity remains insufficient.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington-based think tank focused on nuclear security, warns that a cyberthreat risks endangering physical security gains, and that such an attack “could have consequences that reverberate around the world and undermine global confidence in civilian nuclear power as a safe and reliable energy source.”

Pacific Forum’s David Santoro, vice president and director for nuclear policy programs, has warned that nuclear and radioactive security against cyberattacks is a “growing problem that still remains largely ignored today.”

North Korea has shown that its hackers have the capability to compromise advanced computer systems around the world and in a variety of sectors, but the regime has also shown its willingness to attack and hold hostage critical infrastructure, including nuclear facilities.

After a string of attacks aimed at financial institutions, diplomatic cables and the whereabouts and doings of defectors, last year North Korean malware was found on the computers at the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in India. The malware was not identified immediately, and an Indian cybersecurity expert stated that “extremely mission-critical targets” at the plant were affected, and that the intrusions, which could have compromised the reactors themselves, “weren’t destructive because the actor decided against it. We were at its mercy.”

Such an attack could have disastrous consequences that result in radiological release, and in the context of FNPPs, radiological release into a marine environment of global importance; radiation levels in the sea off Fukushima after the 2011 disaster were millions of times higher than the government’s limit.

The question regarding North Korean cyberattacks against FNPPs isn’t whether there is capability or intent, but rather what measures can be proactively taken to deter and defend against such an attack.

The first is deterrence. North Korea operates its cyberarmy and launches attacks with complete impunity. A United Nations panel of experts report found that North Korea netted approximately $670 million from hacks between 2015 and 2018. Far from being punished, Kim was granted summits with the presidents of the United States and South Korea — massive propaganda wins for North Korea both domestically and internationally.

North Korea relies heavily on overseas locations to launch cyberattacks, generally in China but throughout South and Southeast Asia as well. Both the United States and the U.N. should be aggressively sanctioning individuals and entities associated with these operations, and the U.S. should grant victims the right to sue and seek damages. Such actions against third-party actors would considerably raise the risk of enabling North Korea’s cyber operations.

The second is defense. Cybersecurity surrounding FNPPs, and nuclear facilities more broadly, needs to be normalized and institutionalized. Regional and international dialogue, benchmarks and inspections can lend itself to a more prepared and fortified industry. As FNPPs deployed in Southeast Asia will involve the security equities of each member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, nuclear cybersecurity should be given a permanent place on the agenda of ASEAN summits, and should include robust engagement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to develop inspection and approval mechanisms that include each member nation and its cybersecurity experts.

Additionally, nations that supply FNPPs should both (1) be required to provide necessary cybersecurity training and capacity to the acquirer; and (2) be partially accountable for inherent flaws in the equipment or systems that cause cybersecurity vulnerabilities. If a company wants to sell and provide FNPPs to the region, then it needs to share the burden of protecting against nuclear blackmail.

The combination of increasing North Korean cyber belligerence and the deployment of vulnerable technologies in the region gives North Korea an opportunity to hold nuclear systems hostage that could have disastrous consequences for an entire region’s waterways.

With the appropriate steps, however, the international community can shut the door on Kim’s cyberarmy and make clear that attacks on FNPPs will not be tolerated nor will systems be left vulnerable.

Brian Moore is a Pacific Forum young leader and former resident fellow. He previously served as a policy adviser for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where he specialized in economic sanctions, illicit finance and foreign investment screening related to national security.


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U.S. senators urge Trump administration to strengthen N.K. sanctions enforcement

YONHAP News | By Lee Haye-ah

WASHINGTON, April 3 (Yonhap) — Two U.S. senators have urged Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to step up enforcement of sanctions on North Korea.

In a letter dated March 31, Sens. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) said North Korea poses a “growing threat” amid stalled denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

Menendez, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Gardner, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cybersecurity Policy, asked that the secretaries “urgently prioritize resources” to strengthen enforcement of U.S. and U.N. sanctions on North Korea while ensuring that humanitarian aid can reach the North Korean people.

“We note with regret that nearly two years since Trump-Kim ‘summit diplomacy’ began, North Korea continues to refuse to enter working level talks with the United States while nevertheless continuing to test missiles and produce fissile material,” said the letter posted on the senators’ respective websites.

“Yet, U.S. engagement and leadership at the United Nations regarding sanctions violations and the pace of unilateral U.S. designations of entities violating DPRK sanctions has diminished considerably. Therefore, we urge you to continue to make clear that the ultimate objective of United States policy remains to seek denuclearization of the DPRK,” it added, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The senators said the Treasury’s recent designation of two Chinese actors in connection with North Korea’s malicious cyber-related activity was a positive step but “not commensurate” with the scale of Pyongyang’s cyber-enabled sanctions evasion.

The two called for regular designations that would deter increasingly sophisticated cyber-crime and sanctions evasion activities.

Meanwhile, the senators also said they were “disturbed” by news reports that an upcoming report by a panel of experts to the U.N. Security Council North Korea sanctions committee points to North Korea’s illegal coal exports and refined petroleum imports via ship-to-ship transfers between North Korean-flagged vessels and Chinese barges.

“This systematic facilitation of illegal transactions, in violation of international law, must be addressed in order for U.N. sanctions to achieve their purpose,” the letter said. “The United States cannot continue to stand silent — or be complicit — as the sanctions regime erodes.”

Washington should increase pressure on China and Russia, including through secondary sanctions if necessary, to add pressure on North Korea to negotiate its denuclearization, the senators said.

They urged the secretaries to also work with the Department of Justice to impose criminal penalties against North Korea’s enablers in China and elsewhere.

On North Korea’s repeated short-range missile launches, the senators said the administration was sending a “dangerous signal” by doing “little to hold North Korea to account.”

“Without the administration’s strong and continued condemnation of these launches and additional deterrent
measures from the United States and with our allies and partners, North Korea will continue to
expand its ballistic missile capabilities,” they wrote.

“Permitting further short- and medium-range testing enables the continued development of technologies required for long-range missile systems which are detrimental to U.S national security and that of our allies.”


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Defense cost-sharing deal still eludes allies

Korea JoongAng Daily  |  BY JUNG HYO-SIK, SHIM KYU-SEOK

A breakthrough deal on defense cost sharing between Korea and the United States may not be so close after all, with a high-ranking U.S. official on Wednesday saying U.S. President Donald Trump has yet to sign off on a provisional agreement reached by negotiators.

The remarks from the administration official, who told the JoongAng Ilbo that Trump continues to expect Korea to pay a much larger share of the upkeep of 28,500 U.S. troops on its soil, challenged hopes that a monthslong war of attrition between the allies over the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) was nearing an end with reports that a deal was in “final discussions.”

Korea’s presidential office, the Blue House, hinted Wednesday it could make an announcement regarding an agreement that day, but no such declaration came.

The delay, it appears, may have been the result of pushback from the White House.

Not much is known about the contours of the provisional agreement reached between the two sides’ negotiators in Los Angeles, but the agreed-upon amount to be paid by Korea is believed to be closer to Seoul’s proposal of 10 percent more than the previous year, when it paid some 1.04 trillion won (around $920 million).

This would be far from Washington’s demand that Seoul pay about $4 billion a year, which itself was a step down from its initial call for a fivefold increase in Korea’s contribution, or $5 billion.

Trump has repeatedly claimed Korea and other U.S. allies like Japan and NATO member states are taking advantage of U.S. military commitments by refusing to pay a share of the costs proportional to their wealth.

A high-ranking official in Korea raised the possibility that Seoul may have jumped the gun with its hints of an SMA deal.

“It’s strange, because the Blue House would have verified the White House’s position on the matter before floating hints about a provisional agreement at hand,” said the source.

“If it were simply a technical matter like wording issues, an announcement would just be a matter of time, but if it was the case that President Trump rejected the amount agreed, then the Korean side may have been too hasty.”

Such haste may have been prompted by the fact that Korea is due to hold general elections on April 15, which would inevitably delay the necessary parliamentary ratification process for a new SMA deal if it were to come after the elections.

Wednesday was also the first day that over 4,000 Korean employees of the U.S. Forces Korea, or around half the Korean personnel working for the American military, were put on unpaid furlough because of the delays in reaching a new bilateral SMA.

The leave for the Korean workers, an unprecedented situation for the alliance, leaves the U.S. Forces Korea deprived of essential services necessary to keep up its operations on the peninsula. It also comes at a time when North Korea continues its military provocations with a series of weapons tests this month.

The U.S. State Department said it had nothing to add on the SMA negotiations but that it would comment if there was a change in the situation. Seoul’s Foreign Ministry in a statement released Thursday said “no agreement had yet been reached” on the defense cost-sharing deal but that talks would continue.

As reports were surfacing on a provisional deal on Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman on Asia Lt. Col. David Eastburn told U.S. broadcaster NBC that “sooner the U.S. and ROK can reach agreement, the better.”

The ROK is an acronym for South Korea’s formal name, the Republic of Korea.

“However, we are certain the State Department will not rush to a bad agreement,” he added.

“We need the right agreement which provides for fair and equitable burden sharing.”

NBC also added that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visited the White House on Tuesday to try to prevent the furlough of Korean workers. Whatever appeals they may have made to Trump, however, appears to have floundered, forcing the two countries to return to the negotiating table.



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North Korea Remains Self-Isolated and Defiant Amidst the Coronavirus

The National Interest  |  By Bruce Klingner

North Korea continues to claim it has no COVID-19 cases, despite all neighboring countries having outbreaks. But Pyongyang’s state media have reported that 7,000 people were being held for “medical monitoring.” Some South Korean NGOs with access to sources in North Korea report that major cities in North Korea have been hit by the coronavirus epidemic and many regions suffer from a shortage of daily necessities. Moreover, the report that people are starving to death in both border regions and inland areas, and more than 100 North Korean soldiers stationed near the Chinese border have died of the coronavirus.

President Trump’s offer of COVID-19 assistance to North Korea was quickly rebuffed by the regime. But the disclosure of Trump’s secret message has generated debate over policy options. Some see a bigger assistance package and reducing sanctions as a way to get negotiations back on track. Others urge even stronger measures against North Korean cybercrime and missile launches. Pyongyang has yet to carry out its threats of revealing a new strategic weapon or resuming long-range missile or nuclear tests. But the regime may do so to garner economic benefits or because it believes it has leverage over Trump in an election year.Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, Kim Jong-un in late December warned North Koreans to expect dire economic conditions brought on by international sanctions. The regime resurrected earlier campaigns calling on the public to “tighten their belts” after several years of promising an improving economy. North Korea’s subsequent draconian response to the COVID-19 outbreak in China may ameliorate a health crisis, but at the cost of further degrading the economy.

North Korea rapidly implemented quarantine measures far more extensive than those imposed during the 2003 SARS, 2014 Ebola, and 2015 MERS outbreaks. The regime closed its borders, suspended all travel into and out of the country, recalled officials stationed in China, and imposed a quarantine on all inbound cargo. All items transiting North Korean ports or crossing border bridges are kept in isolated areas for 10 days. Pyongyang also imposed severe restrictions on internal travel within the country, cracking down on people crossing provincial borders without special permits.

Pyongyang also cracked down on smuggling—including even reducing their own state-run smuggling. The government ordered border units to prevent smuggling, announced harsh punishments against smugglers, and augmented monitoring. Satellite imagery showed many North Korean commercial vessels that had previously carried sanctioned material to and from China, including via illicit ship-to-ship fuel transfers at sea, were idled in their home ports.

North Korea’s economy has been decimated by the combined impact of sanctions restricting trade, the regime isolating the country from both legal and covert foreign supply chains, Pyongyang’s strong domestic COVID-19 isolation measures, and its repressive socialist economy. Furthermore, North Korea’s foreign currency reserves were already dwindling, and the country is now approaching the lean food months before the fall harvest.

Pyongyang’s isolation measures have indirectly enhanced enforcement of UN economic sanctions. Chinese entities had engaged in prohibited economic activity with North Korea, but both countries have now curtailed smuggling in order to reduce the risk of contagion. 

The regime has cut itself off from China which accounts for 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade. To counter the loss of income sent back to the regime from North Korea’s workers in other countries, Pyongyang had emphasized gaining hard currency from foreign tourists. But all tourist operations are now suspended. North Korea’s combined exports to China in January and February declined by 71.9 percent to $10.7 million, the lowest figure since February of 2018. North Korean imports from China over the same period declined by 23 percent.

North Korea faces potential disaster. Food prices are soaring, with the cost of rice increasing by 25 percent. The populace, impoverished and malnourished, is at high risk to a devastating outbreak of the disease. The country’s decrepit medical system, even in normal circumstances, is undersupplied. Kim has acknowledged that his country lacks modern medical facilities and called for urgent improvements.

North Korea has also sought foreign aid. Kim sent a letter to South Korea President Moon Jae-in asking for help in combating coronavirus. Pyongyang requested a rush order for medical supplies from China. The regime also secretly asked for urgent international help to increase COVID-19 testing in North Korea.

Pyongyang announced on March 22 that Kim had received a personal letter from President Trump offering U.S. assistance in combating COVID-19 and providing a plan to develop bilateral ties. President Trump later confirmed the North Korean statement but did not provide details.

North Korea responded with dismissals and missiles. Pyongyang commended Trump for sending the letter but affirmed previous messaging that the strong personal relationship between Trump and Kim had no bearing on the poor relations between the two countries nor the ongoing nuclear impasse.

Pyongyang has repeatedly warned Washington that until it abandons its “hostile policy” and current negotiating position, there will be no diplomatic talks at either the working or summit level. While Trump’s letter shows that communications remain possible, Pyongyang has made clear it isn’t interested in discussing its nuclear and missile programs.

As if to underscore that message, North Korea has gone on a spree of missile testing. In 2019, the regime launched 26 missiles, the largest annual total since UN resolutions forbidding such tests were enacted. This March 2020, North Korea launched seven more missiles, all in violation of UN resolutions. Pyongyang also conducted several large-scale military exercises, even though the United States and South Korea curtailing their scheduled combined exercises.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has asked for a waiver of sanctions to ensure access to food, essential health supplies, and COVID-19 medical support. There are no UN or U.S. sanctions on food, medicine, or humanitarian assistance. All UN resolutions and U.S. laws have language highlighting that any punitive measures do not cover those items.

However, some sanctions prohibit certain high-tech equipment that could potentially be of use to the nuclear and missile programs. In response to a request from the World Food Program, the UN approved an exemption so diagnostic and medical equipment can be transported into North Korea. In granting the exemption, the UN sanctions committee emphasized that UN sanctions “are not intended to bear a negative impact on the people” of North Korea.

The UN approved six-month waivers for the World Health Organization, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and Doctors Without Borders to send thermometers, portable ventilators, resuscitators, gloves, face shields, surgical masks, gowns and goggles. The first shipments of international medical aid have arrived at North Korea’s borders, but delivery is hampered by the regime’s strict quarantine restrictions.

The U.S. position has been to support the UN exemption decision and offer assistance to North Korea while maintaining sanctions until the regime ceases the nuclear and missile activity that triggered the sanctions response. Prior to President Trump’s letter to Kim, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that America had offered humanitarian assistance to North Korea after the COVID-19 outbreak and will continue to seek to provide relief.

In February, the State Department expressed the United States’ deep concern about the vulnerability of the North Korean people to a coronavirus outbreak and voiced support for U.S. and international aid and health organizations to counter the spread of coronavirus in North Korea.

With countries focused on combating COVID-19, there seems even less potential for a resumption of nuclear negotiations. At the end of 2019, North Korea rejected dialogue with the United States and declared the regime no longer felt bound by its previous pledge not to conduct ICBM or nuclear testing.

Even if negotiations resumed, the two sides are far apart on even the basis for an agreement. Crafting a good agreement would require extensive diplomatic meetings that would go beyond the U.S. presidential election. If North Korea altered its negotiating position, including in return for economic relief, President Trump might be willing to accept a small deal that, while flawed, could be seen as a first step to final denuclearization.

But it is more likely that Trump would prefer the quiet status quo of the last year where, despite a record high number of North Korean violations of UN resolutions, the lack of major provocations is seen as an improvement over the high tensions of 2017. Knowing that, however, could lead North Korea to threaten or carry out escalatory provocations. Pyongyang may assess that Washington, facing both health and economic crises, would be more malleable to avoid a concurrent foreign policy crisis.

The Trump administration must chart a course between the twin flaws of overreacting and underreacting to a North Korean ICBM test. America should not return to “fire and fury” rhetoric, nor initiate an attack on North Korea for crossing a technological threshold, since that would risk precipitating a full-scale war with a nuclear nation, leading to massive casualties.

The United States should urge the UN sanctions committee to expeditiously process requests for sanctions exemptions to ensure humanitarian assistance is not inadvertently blocked. Washington should also work with South Korea to discuss providing medical supplies to North Korea. Unfortunately, Pyongyang has rejected U.S. attempts at diplomatic and humanitarian dialogue.


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North Korea Turns to Cyber Disinformation Attacks Amid Global Coronavirus Outbreak

Google’s Threat Analysis Group (TAG) released a new report on March 26 revealing North Korean hackers’ persistent cyberattacks on news outlets to spread disinformation. This new development in North Korean cyber operations reflects not only Pyongyang’s interest in expanding the scope of its cyber capabilities, but also the Kim regime’s attempts to conceal its struggles in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

The new Google TAG report found that since 2019, North Korean as well as Iranian state-backed hackers have targeted news outlets, journalists, and their related contacts to plant false stories and launch disinformation campaigns. Additionally, these state-backed hackers sought to gain the log-in information of journalists and their correspondents by integrating advanced social engineering and spear phishing tactics.

These actions reflect North Korea’s strategic objectives, as the regime regularly conducts information and influence activities (IIA) to maintain and strengthen its power both at home and abroad. The Korea Institute of Liberal Democracy, a South Korean think tank, revealed that North Korea employs 7,000 agents engaged in propaganda and information warfare. Their mission is to manipulate South Korean public opinion in Pyongyang’s favor.

Although North Korea’s IIA strategy prioritizes South Korea, the Google TAG report suggests Pyongyang is expanding its targeting range to the rest of the world. Specifically, earlier this February, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that a North Korean-hacked FAO account provided Voice of America with a fake story. The story claimed that an FAO leader affirmed the North Korean regime’s assertion it had no cases of coronavirus within its borders.

Yet since the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year, policymakers and foreign policy experts around the globe have collectively expressed skepticism about North Korea’s ability to cope with the pandemic. The Kim regime persistently dismisses such doubts and reports it has zero cases, despite reports from North Korean defectors of hundreds of coronavirus-related deaths.

Rather than admitting its inability to combat the outbreak by actively seeking international support, the North Korean regime has continued its provocations. For example, Pyongyang continues conducting short-range missile tests not only to advance its military capabilities, but also to signal to the world that the Kim family regime operates from a position of strength even while confronting the global pandemic.

Cyberattacks could be another provocation tool, as they could disrupt the ability of the United States and other nations to confront the coronavirus. For instance, unidentified hackers temporarily disabled U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) servers with a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack earlier this month. Although there is no evidence to suggest North Korea perpetrated this attack, Pyongyang’s cyber warriors are capable of conducting similarly disruptive and subversive operations, as they did against South Korea in 2009.

As such, the United States and its allies must continue to respond to this persistent threat from Pyongyang. Fortunately, earlier this week, the White House issued a press statement announcing a one-year extension of Executive Orders 13694 and 13757, which laid the foundation for the Treasury Department’s cyber sanctions program.

The administration therefore should enforce these sanctions by targeting the hackers and programmers carrying out malign activities. Additionally, it should target the companies and individuals supporting Pyongyang’s cyber activities, pursuant to the North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016. This legislation requires the U.S. government to sanction individuals and entities that “directed” or “provided material support to conduct significant activities undermining cyber security.”

Imposing and enforcing these financial penalties will allow Washington not only to signal Pyongyang’s malicious activities will not be tolerated, but also to stifle funding of Pyongyang’s cyber army.

Mathew Ha is a research analyst focused on North Korea at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation (CCTI). For more analysis from Mathew and CCTI, please subscribe HERE. Follow Mathew on Twitter. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CCTI. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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‘We consider them family’: US military furloughs thousands of South Korean employees in blow to alliance

Members of the South Korean employees’ union protest the U.S. Forces Korea furlough outside the main gate at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Wednesday, April 1, 2020.


CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — Following months of warnings, the U.S. military put 4,500 South Korean base employees — about half its local workforce — on unpaid leave indefinitely Wednesday after the allies failed to agree on a new defense cost-sharing deal.

The furlough — the first of its kind — was a blow to the alliance and joint military readiness to fight on the divided peninsula, which commanders say already has been jeopardized by restrictions on movement aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Negotiators have been deadlocked over the United States’ demand that South Korea sharply increase its contribution to offset the costs of stationing some 28,500 service members on the divided peninsula as defense against the nuclear-armed North.

U.S. Forces Korea commander Gen. Robert Abrams expressed regret and promised to continue to press both governments to reach a new Special Measures Agreement as soon as possible since the previous deal expired at the end of the year.

“The partial furlough of (South Korean) employees is not what we envisioned or hoped what would happen,” he said in a videotaped message. “The furlough is in no way a reflection of their performance, dedication or conduct, but rather due to a lack of a burden-sharing agreement making programmed funds unavailable.”

“These are our employees, our co-workers, our teammates, and we consider them family,” he added. “And 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.”

South Korean officials blamed the American side, saying they had offered compromises including a way to isolate the labor issue while continuing to negotiate on other items.

“Our government has suggested a variety of measures, including the execution of a budget to address the wage issue first, based upon the notion that the furlough does help the combined defense posture,” said defense ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo.

She added that the government would push for a special law to grant loans to help the USFK employees who were ordered not to report to work.

“The ministry will continue to work closely with the U.S. Department of Defense and USFK to prevent the current situation from affecting the joint posture,” she said.

The Americans had been paying salaries for the first three months of 2020 with programmed funds, but those dried up on Tuesday.

Pong Ha-song, a 60-year-old dining facility employee who has been with USFK for nearly 30 years, said he hopes a deal can be reached soon so he can go back to work.

“President Trump has been holding Korean USFK workers hostage. This is a hard blow for us,” he said Wednesday as he joined the Korean Employees’ Union in a small protest outside Camp Humphreys, the main U.S. base south of Seoul.

“My family’s livelihood is in danger and I’m going to have difficulties putting food on the table,” he added. “If the furlough drags on, I think I’m going to have to look for a part-time job or something.”

Hopes were raised when South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to send coronavirus testing kits to the U.S. during a phone conversation with Trump last week. Three South Korean firms are planning to ship the diagnostic equipment after winning interim approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

On Tuesday, Jeong Eun-bo, South Korea’s lead negotiator, said the two sides were close to a deal after seven rounds of talks, most recently in mid-March in Los Angeles, and were continuing close discussions.

The Yonhap News Agency, quoting an unidentified diplomatic source, also reported that the two sides had reached “the stage of putting on the finishing touches” and could announce a deal later Wednesday.

But a Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with department rules, played down the report and said no official announcement was in the works.

U.S. negotiators have reportedly dropped initial demands for a fivefold increase in funding of nearly $5 billion a year but are still seeking an increase of at least three times the $920 million that South Korea paid last year.

Seoul, meanwhile, is believed to have offered to go as high as 10% more but wants to maintain the framework of the agreement, which covers most of the South Korean workers’ salaries as well as other logistical and construction costs.
Twitter: @kimgamel


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US-South Korea close to deal, negotiator says, on eve of USFK furloughs


U.S. and South Korea flags are displayed together outside Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Monday, March 16, 2020. MATTHEW KEELER/STARS AND STRIPES

SEOUL, South Korea  — U.S. and South Korea are close to reaching a defense cost-sharing deal, a negotiator said Tuesday in Seoul on the eve of American military plans to put half of its local work force on unpaid leave.

U.S. Forces Korea was able to keep about 4,500 South Korean employees determined to be essential for maintaining “life, health, safety and minimum readiness.”

But the others will be furloughed beginning Wednesday after the two sides failed in seven rounds of talks to reach a new Special Measures Agreement to replace the one that expired at the end of the year.

Jeong Eun-bo, South Korea’s lead negotiator, expressed regret that the United States was going forward with the furlough after the State Department rejected Seoul’s proposal to reach a separate labor agreement.

“South Korea and the U.S. are in the last stages for sealing a deal and have continued to hold close discussions even after the seventh round of talks in mid-March,” he told reporters on Tuesday evening.

“We call on the U.S. side to take measures to return the Korean USFK employees facing a furlough to their workplaces as soon as possible,” he said.

USFK had been paying the salaries with programmed funds since the previous deal expired, but that money was due to run out on Tuesday. The Defense Department said it will continue additional funding to support “critical” logistics cost-sharing contracts and other key positions.

Gen. Robert Abrams, the USFK commander, told Stars and Stripes that he had secured approval to keep more people due to complications from the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. service members also will fill in for some of the vacated positions, he said Friday during an interview. He wouldn’t say how many and acknowledged the troops would have a learning curve in their new roles.

Abrams said it was “heartbreaking” to have to put so many people on unpaid leave.

“A lot of these people, they’re the breadwinner for their family and their extended family. It’s just really hard, and it’s an unfortunate situation,” he said Friday in an interview at his office on Camp Humphreys.

The “litmus test” will be if the furlough is still on when a Pentagon order barring moves to prevent coronavirus spread is lifted, creating a backlog of people trying to move on and off the peninsula, Abrams said.

“I was able to go back to the department and in light of COVID-19 to secure some additional authorizations so we’ve included that,” Abrams said.

“On the life, health, safety and minimum readiness we’ll be OK in the short-term,” he said. “I’ll be watching closely the impact on readiness and our ability to deliver services at an acceptable level.”

The issue doesn’t affect non-appropriated fund organizations such as on-base restaurants, exchange stores, bowling alleys and other community activities that receive money from other sources.

Military officials also have said previously that the mitigating measures would ensure “limited to no observable reactions” for the hospital on Camp Humphreys and other medical facilities, law enforcement, commissaries, schools and post offices.

However, people could expect increased wait times, modified hours and other delays in bus services, non-emergency maintenance work orders, installation access IDs and other administrative needs.

The South has helped support U.S. troops under the Special Measures Agreement since 1991, with most of the funds used for more than 9,000 South Korean employees, logistical support and construction projects.

President Donald Trump’s administration has demanded that Seoul sharply increase its contribution for offsetting the cost of some 28,500 troops stationed on the peninsula because of the threat from North Korea.
Twitter: @kimgamel


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KDVA’s ROK-U.S. Alliance Journal Issue: 2020-2

70th Commemoration of the Korean War Special Platinum Edition

Featuring Stories and Articles by KDVA Members and Supporters of the ROK-U.S. Alliance.

Download PDF Version: ROK-U.S. Alliance Journal 2020-2

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Soldiers’ premature twins medically evacuated out of South Korea now receiving treatment at Walter Reed

Military Times  | 

Military medical personnel transfer twin newborns Parker and Laine McFall to a medical transport vehicle on the flight line of Joint Base Andrews, Md., as part of an aeromedical evacuation mission on March 30, 2020. The pair were born February 17 at 30 weeks in Daegu’s Yeungnam Medical University Medical Center during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Huddleston.

Update: Twin newborns medically evacuated from Osan Air Base, South Korea, landed at Joint Base Andrews in a C-17 Globemaster III this evening. The pair were then transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for advanced neonatal care.

Parker and Laine McFall were born February 17 at 30 weeks in Daegu’s Yeungnam Medical University Medical Center during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The twins were joined for the aeromedical evacuation by their parents, U.S. Army Spc. Cody McFall and Pfc. Cheyenne Evans. Both soldiers were preemptively tested for COVID-19 and placed in quarantine on March 10. They tested negative and are currently showing no symptoms.

The effort involved the U.S. Army’s 65th Medical Brigade, the U.S. Air Force’s 51st Medical Group, the USAF’s 18th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, the Air National Guard’s 154th Wing, and the 11th Medical Group Aeromedical Staging Facility on Joint Base Andrews.

Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is the only facility currently able to accommodate the infants’ specific needs.

“It’s a significant movement because we have a family that needs some care not readily available here in Korea,” Col Joseph Hudak, a neonatologist from Brian D. Allgood Army Community Hospital at Camp Humphreys, said in a video Osan Air Base posted on Facebook.

Parker and Laine McFall were born 10 weeks early on Feb. 17 to Army’s Spc. Cody McFall and Pfc. Cheyenne Evans at the Yeungnam Medical University Medical Center in Daegu, amid the COVID-19 outbreak in the area.

After being medically cleared and protected from the virus, the twins were taken from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at the medical center in Daegu to Osan Air Base where they met a specialized group of medical personnel from the Air Force’s 18th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, based out of Kadena Air Base in Japan.

They then boarded a C-17 to head to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, “culminating in care at Maryland’s Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for advanced neonatal patients,” the Air Force’s 51st Fighter Wing said in a news release Monday.

“We have to move them across to the other side of the world, and this is a truly joint effort,” Hudak said. “This is an Air Force critical care team, moving an Army family to a Navy hospital, and we’re doing it seamlessly in the middle of a pandemic.”

Prior to the evacuation, McFall and Evans — who are with the 188th Military Police Company at Camp Walker near Daegu — were quarantined starting on March 10 and also tested negative for COVID-19.

“Advanced precautions were made to protect the infants, parents, medical providers and aircrew coming from across the region to support the critical care transport,” the 51st Fighter Wing said in a news release.

In addition to the 18th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, the medical evacuation involved the Army’s 65th Medical Brigade, the Air Force’s 51st Medical Group, and the Air National Guard’s 154th Wing.



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Coronavirus hits US military in South Korea at its core with three new cases at Camp Humphreys

Customers wait to enter the commissary at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Friday, March 27, 2020. Escalated health protection measures put limits on the number of people who can be inside the store at one time.

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SEOUL, South Korea — The coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. military in South Korea at its core this week as three people working at the Eighth Army headquarters tested positive, including the second soldier to be infected on the divided peninsula.

The new infections, including two reported Friday, raised the total number of cases affiliated with U.S. Forces Korea to 12, raising concern about complacency as the overall number of infections in South Korea has slowed.

Officials at Camp Humphreys, the main Army base in South Korea with a population of more than 37,000, ordered all organizations to reduce staff to mission essential only and restricted movement to bare necessities, including food and health needs.

Gyms were closed, and taxis and buses halted as teams worked to clean areas that the infected people visited over the past 48 hours and to conduct contact tracing to determine whether anybody else may have been exposed.

Lines formed at the main post exchange and the commissary, where only 100 people at a time may enter. Col. Michael Tremblay, the garrison commander, said the limit was imposed for social distancing purposes and there were no shortages.

Army Sgt. Trisha Bacani, 32, of Los Angeles waited about two hours to get into the commissary to buy supplies for herself and a friend who is self-quarantined in the barracks.

A social distancing decal is posted outside the exchange at Camp Humphreys, South Korea, Friday, March 27, 2020.

She wasn’t complaining, saying the protective measures were appropriate given the situation.

“It’s scary to go out,” she said. “We just have to be patient and wait in line.

Meanwhile, bases in other parts of the country barred entry for anybody who had been at Camp Humphreys over the past few days.

The new restrictions were imposed after U.S. Forces Korea confirmed Friday that an American soldier and a contractor had tested positive after apparently coming in contact with another contractor who was confirmed to be infected on Tuesday.

All three worked at the Eighth Army headquarters, Gen. Robert Abrams said in remarks on American Forces Network radio. Another soldier tested positive in late February, but the other cases were military dependents, contractors or South Korean employees.

The contractor confirmed Friday was in isolation at his off-base residence as directed by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a press release. It said he last visited Camp Humphreys on Tuesday but had been self-isolated due to the previous case.

The soldier is in isolation at Camp Humphreys in a barracks set aside for coronavirus cases, according to a USFK press release.

The contractor was the fourth case of coronavirus confirmed at Camp Humphreys, which is in the rural area of Pyeongtaek about 55 miles south of Seoul. The other eight cases are at bases in the southeastern city of Daegu and nearby areas, which were at the center of the outbreak that began in mid-February in South Korea.

USFK remains at a high-risk level for the virus. The command has sharply restricted access to bases and ordered service members to avoid nonessential travel and off-post social activities in a bid to keep the virus from spreading.

“I’ve been staying at home all the days I’m not on duty and I ran out of food,” Navy Lt. Jamie Collyer said as she stood in line at the commissary.

“Do I want to stand outside in the wind? No. Am I upset about it? No. I think that the restrictions are a reasonable measure,” she added. “We’ve seen how it can jump from person to person.”

South Korea logged 91 new cases on Thursday for a total of 9,332, according to the latest figures available from the KCDC. It was the 16th day of figures around 150 or lower, down from a high of 909 cases on Feb. 29.
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