U.S. Forces Korea placed thousands of South Korean employees on indefinite furlough on Wednesday, as Seoul and Washington remain deadlocked over a new cost-sharing arrangement. File Photo by Keizo Mori/UPI | License Photo
SEOUL, April 1 (UPI) -- As funding from a military cost-sharing arrangement between Washington and Seoul ran out on Wednesday without a new agreement in place, U.S. Forces Korea placed thousands of South Korean civilian employees on indefinite furlough.
The move came after months of negotiations failed to bridge the gap over spending for a new Special Measures Agreement, which determines how much Seoul must pay for the upkeep of the 28,500 American troops stationed on the Korean Peninsula.
U.S. President Donald Trump has reportedly asked for a $5 billion annual contribution from South Korea, a more than five-fold increase from the $890 million Seoul paid in 2019.
About half of the 9,000 South Korean workers whose salaries are covered by the agreement have been furloughed, USFK Commander Gen. Robert B. Abrams said Wednesday.
In a statement, Abrams called the furlough "unthinkable" and "heartbreaking" and said the move was "not what we envisioned or hoped would happen."
"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," he said.
The agreement expired at the end of 2019 and the South Korean employees were being paid with residual funds.
South Korea's top negotiator in the cost-sharing talks, Jeong Eun-bo, expressed regret over the impending furlough on Tuesday.
"The decision by the U.S. side to press ahead with the furloughs for our workers as planned does not properly reflect the situation of the negotiations and we think this is regrettable," Jeong told reporters, according to news agency Yonhap.
Jeong said that both sides had narrowed their differences and expressed optimism that a deal would be struck soon.
"Currently, South Korea and the U.S. are making their best efforts to conclude the negotiations, now at their last phase, in a mutually beneficial way," he said. "Given that the countries have considerably narrowed differences, we expect the final conclusion of the negotiations in the near future."
In the seventh and most recent round of negotiations in March, Seoul reportedly offered to cover the wages of the South Korean nationals on U.S. military bases, but Washington turned down the offer.
Last month, South Korean employees warned that the furlough would comprise U.S. bases.
On Wednesday, Abrams said that the USFK would "work to minimize the impact" despite the "strenuous circumstances."
"It is an understatement to say these are challenging times, as no one feels the impact more than our furloughed employees," he said.
The move came as South Korea continues to battle a COVID-19 outbreak that has also impacted U.S. military personnel, employees and family members on the peninsula.
As of Monday, 11 contractors and two service members have been confirmed with the disease. Last week, the USFK declared the outbreak a public health emergency, limiting services on installations and restricting off-installation travel.