Thousands of South Korean staff face forced leave at US military bases

Thousands of South Korean staff face forced leave at US military bases
Thousands of South Korean staff face forced leave at US military bases

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - SEOUL: A dispute over a cost-sharing scheme for maintaining US troops in South Korea has put local staff at risk of losing their jobs.

On Tuesday the US Forces Korea (USFK) issued 60-day potential furlough notices to 9,000 South Korean employees at US military installations, where about 28,000 American soldiers are stationed to help safeguard the South against military threats from North Korea.

“United States Forces began providing Korean national employees today with a 60-day notice of a potential administrative furlough that could occur on April 1, 2020,” USFK said in a statement.

Cost-sharing negotiations between the allied nations remain deadlocked, with the US demanding the South pay $4.7 billion in host-nation support, nearly five times more than Seoul’s contribution of about $870 million last year.

US President Donald insists the South stump up more money for shared security burdens, calling the country wealthy.

“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,” the USFK statement read.

“We don’t blame our government,” Kang Tae-wook, secretary general of the policy bureau at the USFK Employee Union, told Arab News. “The current impasse over the cost-sharing issue is because America’s demand is out of the existing agreement’s framework. There were a few times when the USFK gave potential furlough notices to South Korean workers at US bases. This year, they notified each worker individually. That means they are more serious than before.”  

Union members have pledged to continue working at their bases even if they are not paid.

“This is a security-related issue,” Kang added. “We will keep working without payment for the security of this country. We hope both governments will strike a deal in a reasonable, fair and mutually acceptable manner in the near future.”

There is concern about livelihoods, however.

“If this is prolonged by several months, our homes will be disrupted,” Lee Jae-soo, a 48-year-old security guard at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi province, told Arab News. “Even American soldiers and friends here are worried about the current situation.” He added that the problem was political and not related to “the friendship between the people of Korea and America.”

Most of the South Korean workers provide administrative and technical support to US service personnel and their salaries have been covered by their country’s contribution.

A furlough could jeopardize the security of US bases, as well as the defense readiness of the allied forces.

“Without the normal operation of base facilities, unit training and readiness would be affected, as service members would have to be assigned to roles outside their duties,” a USFK official who requested anonymity told Arab News.

The presence of US troops in South Korea is regarded as a deterrent to aggression from the North, which is armed with a nuclear arsenal and conventional weapon systems. Under a wartime operational scenario, the US military is supposed to draw up to 690,000 American personnel from outside the Korean Peninsula.

Meanwhile, major US-South Korean military drills have been suspended since a Singapore meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in April 2018.

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