US Forces Korea has begun sending a 60-day notice of potential furloughs to its nearly 9,000 South Korean employees, officials said Wednesday, in an apparent move to further pressure Seoul to pay more for stationing American troops here.
The notice came as South Korea and the United States have engaged in grueling negotiations over how much Seoul should pay this year and beyond for the upkeep of the 28.500-strong USFK under the cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement.
The previous one-year SMA expired on Dec. 31 -- one reason why the allies have been under pressure to clinch a new SMA. They last held negotiations in Washington last month, but failed to reconcile their differences.
"Due to the 2019 Special Measures Agreement lapse and the continued absence of a subsequent agreement, United States Forces Korea began providing Korean National employees today with a 60-day notice of a potential administrative furlough that could occur on April 1, 2020 absent an agreed upon SMA," the USFK said in a press release.
The US military also said that to remain "open and transparent" and provide information on the 60-day notice, the USFK will host town hall meetings across the peninsula for its South Korean workers through Thursday.
The USFK said that it has offered the notice as required by US law, and that in October, it provided the employees with a six-month notice and associated time line for additional notifications for a potential furlough.
The town hall meetings and written notifications of possible unpaid leave added to concerns by the workers in charge of administrative, health, transportation, communications and cleaning services on the ground.
"It is the first time that the USFK has reached out to individual workers through town hall briefings and private notifications," Son GO, the secretary-general of the Korean Employees Union, told Yonhap News over the phone.
"The psychological pressure and anxiety is greater than what we felt last year," he added.
South Korea and the US are expected to hold the next round of SMA talks in Seoul next month.
A major fault line has been whether to expand the scope of the SMA.
Seoul has insisted that the negotiations should proceed within the existing SMA framework, while Washington has demanded that its coverage be expanded to include extra costs such as those for rotations of American troops to the peninsula.
To tamp down US pressure on South Korea to jack up the defense costs, Seoul has been highlighting its contributions to the bilateral alliance, such as its financial support for the construction of a key US base south of Seoul and its massive purchases of US-made weapons.
eoul's recent decision to expand the areas of operation for its anti-piracy Cheonghae Unit to cover the tense Strait of Hormuz in support of US maritime security operations there also came amid its efforts to enhance its alliance contributions. (Yonhap)