US military warns of service delays, possible furloughs at South Korea base amid cost-sharing deadlock
By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 24, 2020
SEOUL, South Korea — The U.S. military has warned of likely service delays at Camp Humphreys and possible furloughs for thousands of South Korean employees as Washington and Seoul remain deadlocked over cost-sharing.
Nearly a month after the expiration of the previous Special Measures Agreement, under which South Korea shares the costs of stationing some 28,500 U.S. forces in the country, the garrison told residents to brace for delays to services.
“Due to the Special Measures Agreement lapse and implementation of USFK austerity measures, including cessation of overtime pay for Korean National employees, USAG Humphreys will experience some delays to certain installation services,” such as the post office and after-hours maintenance work, according to a message posted on its Facebook page.
Some bus routes operating after 1 a.m. also have been cut back due to the lack of overtime pay.
“We assure you that all matters involving life, health and safety will continue without interruption,” the garrison said, promising no interruption to fire and emergency services or important maintenance needs.
“All housing and barracks maintenance will be addressed, in accordance with established response times,” it said.
South Korea has helped support U.S. troops under the agreement since 1991, with most of the funds used for nearly 10,000 South Korean employees who provide food, administrative and logistical support for troops, as well as construction projects.
The funds aren’t used for American troop salaries or military operations.
“We greatly value our Korean National workforce and their contributions to making USAG Humphreys a valued installation and will continue to provide our community with timely updates that impact installation services,” the Facebook post said.
The previous agreement expired at the end of last year, leaving USFK to function with “residual funds,” as the U.S. ambassador to South Korea described them last week.
The two sides have sparred over Washington’s demands that South Korea significantly increase its contribution to as much as nearly $5 billion per year, a fivefold increase.
Negotiators have said that Washington softened its demands in the sixth round of negotiations earlier this month.
Both sides said they have narrowed their differences but gaps remained. The United States also sought to broaden the scope of the agreement to include funds for rotational troops and other assets to justify the increase.
Ambassador Harry Harris said that U.S. Forces Korea, the main command, was using “residual funds” from last year to minimize the impact on South Korean workers, but he warned “that pot of money … is drying up.”
He also warned that the United States would be required by law to send a 60-day furlough notice soon to South Korean employees. “I think that notice is going to go out soon. I don’t know exactly when but very soon,” he said during a Jan. 16 press conference at his residence in Seoul.
USFK sent a notice in October to the Korean Employees Union, saying it may need to place local workers on unpaid leave beginning in April if an agreement isn’t reached.
In many ways, the situation is a reprise of the 2018 negotiations, which also failed to produce an agreement by the end of that year.
The two sides eventually reached a deal in February that provided some $920 million in funds for 2019 but was only for one year. Previous deals had lasted five years.
Negotiators have gone public this year with their demands and complaints while anti-American activists held several rallies, including a group that briefly broke into the ambassador’s residence.
South Korea will hold parliamentary elections in April, adding a political complication to the negotiations, since the National Assembly must ultimately ratify the special measures agreement.
Both sides insist their longstanding alliance remains solid and say the question of whether to withdraw U.S. troops is not part of the equation.
But Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said South Korea “can and should contribute more to its defense” in a rare, joint opinion piece published Jan. 16 in the Wall Street Journal.
“More than 90% of South Korea’s cost-sharing contributions currently go right back into the local economy in the form of salaries for South Korean nationals … construction contracts, and other services purchased locally to sustain an American presence,” they added. “It’s good for both nations.”