Thousands of South Korean workers on U.S. bases were placed on unpaid leave Wednesday, after the United States and South Korea failed to reach a deal on how to split the cost of the U.S. military presence here.
Through seven rounds of talks, South Korea has refused the Trump administration’s demand to massively increase its contribution toward the approximately 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
The latest cost-sharing deal expired at the end of the year, but the U.S. had been covering the salaries of Korean employees with funds that ran out this week.
Starting Wednesday, about 4,000 Korean civilian employees, who work in areas such as logistics and administration, will be indefinitely furloughed. The U.S. will temporarily cover the salaries of about 4,500 others whose duties are considered essential, U.S. officials said.
The cost-sharing dispute has caused unusual friction in the 70-year-old alliance that both sides regularly refer to as “ironclad.” The friction is especially ill-timed, coming as the U.S. military fights off the coronavirus and as North Korea test-fires a record number of short-range missiles.
During a last-minute push to reach a deal, the head South Korean negotiator, Jeong Eun-bo, said the two sides had reached the “final stages for sealing a deal,” but called the furloughs “regrettable.”
“This is an unfortunate day for us. It’s unthinkable. It’s heartbreaking. The partial furlough of [Korean National] employees is not what we envisioned or hoped what would happen,” said General Robert Abrams, the top U.S. commander in Korea.
“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,” Abrams said.
U.S. President Donald Trump has demanded South Korea pay up to $5 billion to support the U.S. military presence -- or about five times the amount Seoul paid in 2019. Local media reports suggest the U.S. had recently lowered its demand to $4 billion.
Trump accuses South Korea of taking advantage of U.S. protection. He has at times hinted he would support pulling troops from South Korea. At other times, he denies a withdrawal has been discussed.
South Korean officials have rejected Trump’s cost-sharing demands as absurd, noting that any deal will have to be reasonable, since it will have to be ratified by South Korea’s parliament. The issue could become even more politically sensitive ahead of South Korea’s legislative election this month.
South Korean officials have warned that the furloughs could impact military readiness.
Camp Humphreys, the main U.S. base in South Korea, is already in partial lockdown after more than a dozen service members, contractors, and other individuals related to the U.S. military in South Korea tested positive for the coronavirus.