|Lee Nak-yon, left, a former prime minister, talks with members of the USFK Korean Employees Union in front of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea's building in Yeouido, Seoul, March 27, during the union's protest ahead of a planned furlough of Korean workers due to an absence of defense-cost sharing deal. / Korea Times file|
By Kang Seung-woo
Thousands of furloughed Korean workers at American military bases here will return to work from the middle of the month after the U.S. accepted the government's proposal to pay their wages regardless of the stalled defense cost-sharing talks.
Starting April, 4,000 of 8,500 Korean employees were put on unpaid leave due to the absence of a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) despite seven rounds of talks between Seoul and Washington. The SMA determines the amount of money the government pays for the stationing of the USFK here and includes wages for Korean workers as well as the cost for construction projects and logistical support.
"The Department of Defense has accepted South Korea's proposal to fund the labor costs for all U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) Korean National (KN) employees through the end of 2020," the Pentagon said in a press statement, Tuesday (local time).
"Today's decision will provide over $200 million in South Korean funding for the USFK's entire KN workforce through the end of 2020. Additionally, it is a direct reflection of the United States' commitment to readiness, to our Korean employees, and to the alliance ― 'the linchpin of peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula.'"
The decision is an unexpected about-face by the U.S. side.
Amid the deadlock in the negotiations, the government suggested that the allies conclude a deal on personnel expenditure first with a plan to deduct the amount from the final due payment to the U.S. However, Washington rejected the proposal, saying such a partial agreement could distract from reaching a comprehensive SMA.
The Ministry of National Defense welcomed the U.S. decision to end the furloughs.
"Korea and the U.S. will strive to reach a defense cost-sharing agreement at an early date," the ministry said in a press release.
USFK Commander Gen. Robert Abrams welcomed the decision.
"The USFK fought tirelessly for our employees, co-workers, and teammates to return to work and our hard work has paid-off. We are thrilled to welcome back our furloughed employees and end this strenuous period for them. Our ability to work together in finding a burden sharing solution for our Korean National employees is another positive sign of the power of our alliance," he said in a statement.
The USFK Korean union hoped that it will assure of no security vacuum.
"Given that the livelihood of Korean workers was being threatened, the decision will enable us to fully support the USFK's missions," Choe Ung-sik, head of the USFK Korean Employees Union, told The Korea Times.
Choe added that the furloughed workers would start working June 15.
USFK commander plays key role
The partial agreement is attributed to Abrams, who made all-out efforts to stem any possible fallout from the furlough.
"Gen. Abrams made the biggest contribution to addressing the matter out of concerns that the lack of Korean workers could negatively affect the combined defense posture," Choe said. "To this end, he had repeatedly urged both the U.S. and Korean governments to get things back on track. He also shared time with the Korean union regarding the issue."
A government source also said Abrams pressured the defense department to minimize any impact the lapsed SMA would have on military readiness.
"As far as I know, he strongly urged Defense Secretary Mark Esper to reach a deal on personnel expenditures first amid the intensifying security vacuum," a source said anonymously. Esper and Abrams are both West Point graduates.
However, concerns also rise that it could take more time for the allies to strike an SMA deal now they are free from the urgent furlough issue.
U.S. President Donald Trump wants Korea to pay nearly $1.3 billion annually ― a nearly 50 percent increase from last year ― but the government is maintaining its proposal of a 13-percent increase that is believed to be the nation's best offer.
While announcing the settlement of the furlough issue, the U.S. renewed its pressure on Korea to raise its share under the SMA.
"The Department of Defense believes that equitable burden-sharing between the governments of the United States and South Korea is in the best interest of all parties," the department said.
"We strongly encourage our ally to reach a fair agreement as quickly as possible. The United States has shown considerable flexibility in their approach to the SMA negotiations, and requests that South Korea does the same."
It added that the lapsed SMA has suspended critical defense infrastructure projects, with the USFK's mid- to long-term force readiness at risk.