By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES
South Koreans working for the U.S. military received a one-month notice Friday, Feb. 28, 2020, that they will be put on unpaid leave if the allies do not come to a defense cost-sharing agreement. KEN SCAR/U.S. ARMY
SEOUL, South Korea — The U.S. military gave its South Korean employees a one-month notice Friday that they will be put on unpaid leave if the allies remained deadlocked over a lapsed defense cost-sharing agreement.
The latest warning of an impending furlough comes as South Korean government and American military officials struggle to contain the rapid spread of a dangerous new coronavirus.
The United States has been paying the salaries for some 9,000 local employees with programmed funds after the Special Measures Agreement expired at the end of 2019 as negotiations continued.
But U.S. Forces Korea said that money will run out at the end of next month. The Defense Department has said it will continue to fund “critical” logistics cost-sharing contracts and key positions providing “life, health, safety and readiness services.”
“United States Forces Korea provided their Korean National employees with a required 30-day notice of its decision to commence an administrative furlough that will begin on April 1, 2020 absent an agreed-upon SMA,” USFK said in a press release.
Army garrison commanders reassured their communities recent in town hall-style meetings that mitigating measures had been taken to ensure there would be “limited to no observable reductions” in services pertaining to “life, health and safety.”
Those include the military hospital on Camp Humphreys, the main U.S. base that has a population of more than 30,000, other medical facilities, law enforcement, schools, commissaries and post office services.
However, people could expect increased wait times, modified hours and other delays in bus services, non-emergency maintenance work orders, housing and installation access requests and other administrative needs, officials said.
The command said it was legally required to send furlough notices to all employees by Friday, but “USFK continues to analyze DoD’s decision of who will be subject to the potential furlough.”
The military already sent the employees a 60-day notice and their union received a broader warning in October, raising the pressure on the South Koreans.
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.
The dispute has become a major irritant in the decades-old alliance between the two countries as they face a growing nuclear threat from North Korea.
Six rounds of talks since last year have failed to reach a consensus, although negotiators from both sides say they have narrowed their differences and the United States has softened its initial demand for nearly $5 billion per year, a fivefold increase.
Washington also is reportedly seeking to broaden the scope of the agreement beyond logistical and salary support to include money for American rotational troops and other off-peninsula costs.
South Korea has demanded that the negotiations remain within the current framework, which requires it mainly fund administrative, logistical and some construction costs.
USFK said it would soon exhaust the programmed funds being used for salaries “without [South Korea’s] continued commitment to share the cost.”
Gen. Robert Abrams, the commander of some 28,500 service members stationed in South Korea, warned that the furlough will impact readiness.
“We greatly value our Korean National workforce and their contributions to the [South Korean]-U.S. Alliance,” he said, according to the press release.
“We’ve explored all options that remain within my authority to delay a potential furlough due to the SMA lapse, and we will continue to explore funding alternatives up to and even during a required furlough,” Abrams said. “Unfortunately, without an agreed upon SMA, we must continue to prepare for a potential furlough.”
In addition to the additional Defense Department funding, the military planned to divert troops from their regular units and bring reinforcements from units off the divided peninsula, officials said.
“If there is a furlough, there will be a degradation in services we are accustomed to receiving,” said Col. Monica Washington, commander of Army garrisons in Seoul and areas to the north.
“USFK has employed all options … and are confident we can mitigate the furlough impacts,” she said Monday, citing the use of borrowed military manpower abbreviated and request for forces from other units outside of USFK.