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U.S. and South Korean flags flap in the wind outside Camp Humphreys, South Korea, March 16, 2020.
U.S. and South Korean flags flap in the wind outside Camp Humphreys, South Korea, March 16, 2020. (Matthew Keeler/Stars and Stripes)

SEOUL, South Korea — Once again, the U.S. military has warned its South Korean base employees that they may face another furlough next year if the allies fail to reach a new defense cost-sharing agreement.

The notice was sent by U.S. Forces Korea to the Korean Employees’ Union and the government on Oct. 5, four months after Seoul agreed to pay more than $200 million to allow thousands of USFK employees to return to work after months of unpaid leave due to the funding stalemate.

The dispute over how much South Korea should pay to offset the costs of stationing 28,500 U.S. troops on the divided peninsula began more than two years ago when the Trump administration demanded a sharp increase as the previous five-year deal was set to expire on Dec. 31, 2018.

Election factor Some 9,000 South Korean employees have been caught in the middle since the contract known as the Special Measures Agreement is used in large part to pay the bulk of their wages.

Last year, USFK made the unprecedented move of placing half the workforce on unpaid leave for about two months until the stopgap funding measure was reached. That money runs out at the end of this year.

South Koreans working for USFK “are a critical part of our team and contribute immeasurably to our readiness, the USFK chief of staff wrote in the notice.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Stephen Williams said USFK has secured U.S. funding through March 31 but faces a labor funding deficit for the rest of the year.

“Absent a signed SMA or related bilateral agreement, USFK may need to furlough appropriated fund [Korean National] employees starting no earlier than April 1,” he wrote.

USFK said it was required by U.S. law to provide the six-month notice although the negotiations are led by the State Department.

“We are keenly interested in the outcome and remain hopeful for a swift conclusion to mitigate a labor funding deficit” for the South Korean workers, the public affairs office said Tuesday in an email.

Union branch chiefs said they had no choice but to hope the standoff will finally be resolved after Tuesday’s U.S. presidential election.

Yang Yu Min, head of the union’s branch in Dongducheon, which is home to Camp Casey, noted that the South Korean government has enacted a special law to provide compensation for workers due to the crisis.

“But they would still be hit hard by a furlough,” he said Monday in a telephone interview. “We are waiting for the results of the presidential election to decide how to proceed.”

President Donald Trump has consistently called for U.S. allies to pay more for their own defense as a cornerstone of his “America First” policy. He also has made clear that he would like to bring American troops home, although he would face stiff opposition in Congress.

“He wants you to surrender our country to China, to all of these other countries that have taken total advantage of us,” Trump said, referring to his Democratic rival and former vice president Joe Biden during an Oct. 29 rally in Florida.

“It’s really the reason why I am here. If it weren’t for the horrible trade deal with South Korea, with our allies, You know in many ways our allies treat us worse than the enemy,” he added. “The enemy at least we have our guard up. Our allies, what they have done to us in terms of military protection and trade is disgraceful.”

The hardline stance has been a major irritant in the U.S.-South Korean alliance, which was forged during the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in an armistice instead of a peace treaty.

Caught in the middle Cost-sharing negotiations between the allies have always been contentious, but Trump’s reported initial demand for a fivefold increase to about $5 billion per year prompted a wave of small but noisy protests in the South.

Biden, meanwhile, has pledged to try to repair ties with the South if he’s elected.

“As President, I’ll stand with South Korea, strengthening our alliance to safeguard peace in East Asia and beyond, rather than extorting Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops,” Biden said in an op-ed published Friday by the Yonhap News Agency.

Biden also promised to “engage in principled diplomacy and keep pressing toward a denuclearized North Korea and a unified Korean Peninsula,” although he offered few specifics in the article that appeared focused on gaining support at the polls from Korean-Americans.

Yang said he was hopeful the issue would be resolved no matter who wins the election, noting that hard lessons were learned earlier this year.

“American troops in Korea were hard pressed to do their operations and found it hard to accomplish tasks while their Korean National employee workforce was furloughed,” he said. “Therefore, I think the ball is in the court of the two governments now.”

The issue doesn’t affect non-appropriated fund organizations such as on-base restaurants, exchange stores and other community activities that receive money from other sources.

USFK also received additional funding to keep some 4,000 people in positions considered essential such as hospital employees, law enforcement and schools.

Many soldiers, meanwhile, found themselves driving buses around post and filling in for administrative positions left vacant by furloughed employees.

gamel.kim@stripes.com Twitter: @kimgamel

chang.kyong@stripes.com

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