It is regretful to see about half of 8,600 South Korean workers at US military bases being forced to go on unpaid leave due to stalled cost-sharing negotiations regarding the stationing of 28,500 American troops here.
The US Forces Korea put thousands of Korean employees on indefinite furlough Wednesday, saying it has run out of funds to pay them.
It marks the first time that Korean employees have been furloughed since the allies worked out a framework for sharing defense burden more than three decades ago.
There is the possibility that the unprecedented move will be withdrawn soon as Seoul and Washington are said to be finalizing a revision to the cost-sharing deal, known as the Special Measures Agreement.
But the negotiations should not have been allowed to drift to the point of threatening to destabilize the livelihoods of Korean workers working for USFK for many years.
The furlough, even though in place for a short period, could risk disrupting not only USFK operations and readiness but also the combined military posture between the allies at a time when North Korea continues to make provocative acts.
The North fired what are believed to be two short-range ballistic missiles Sunday, conducting the fourth such launch this year.
Amid stalled denuclearization talks with the US, the recalcitrant regime has vowed to boost “self-defense capabilities.” The recent series of Pyongyang’s missile test-firings appear aimed at enhancing its ability to strike key targets in South Korea, including US military bases.
The furlough of Korean employees has drawn criticism that Washington used their livelihoods as a bargaining chip at the cost-sharing negotiations with Seoul.
During the latest and seventh round of talks last month, South Korea proposed concluding a separate agreement to first address the wage issue, but the US rejected the idea over concerns that it could further delay a comprehensive deal.
The two sides failed to narrow their differences at the time.
Washington initially called for a fivefold increase in South Korea’s payment to around $5 billion but later revised downward its demand to $3-4 billion.
Seoul proposed about 10 percent rise from its contribution last year. Under the 2019 SMA that expired in December, Seoul was required to pay $870 million, up 8.2 percent from the previous year.
Officials here suggest the two sides, which have maintained unofficial discussions in recent weeks, have made a significant progress toward signing a new cost-sharing accord.
Reflecting this atmosphere, South Korea’s chief negotiator Jeong Eun-bo Tuesday voiced expectation that the negotiations will be concluded “in the near future.”
The negotiations appeared to have gained momentum after President Moon Jae-in and his US counterpart Donald Trump held phone talks on March 24 on strengthening cooperation in fighting the new coronavirus.
During the talks, Trump expressed hope for the shipment of Korean-made medical equipment needed to respond to the rapid spread of the infectious disease in the US. Three Korean firms are preparing to ship their coronavirus diagnostic kits to the US after winning interim approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
Though the SMA issue was not brought up in their conversation, it apparently helped get negotiators from the two countries into a more compromising mode.
According to sources familiar with the negotiations, the US recently came closer to South Korea’s proposal to make some additionaal payment to its original offer. The two sides are also said to have agreed to revise the SMA on the basis of multiple years, most likely five years, instead of being amended annually.
Upon conclusion of the negotiations, the Seoul government plans to push for the parliamentary ratification of the renewed cost-sharing deal before the four-year term of the current National Assembly ends in May.
In order to minimize the impact of the furlough on Korean employees’ livelihoods, the government needs to implement support measures or sign a memorandum of understanding with USFK to guarantee wage payments before parliamentary approval.
What is also needed is to amend the SMA to ensure Seoul will have the authority to select and pay salaries to local employees working for USFK, like in Germany and Japan. This would prevent the recurrence of workers’ livelihood being swayed by deadlocked negotiations in the future.