The vast Camp Humphreys, 64 kms south of Seoul, is the core hub for US Forces Korea. Photo: USFK

Visitors to US outposts in South Korea may be surprised at the large number of locals they encounter on the bases.

The experience starts at the main gate. Rather than US troops, it is uniformed South Korean security teams who check visitors in. Once onto these “Little America” installations, they find it is largely locals who serve at canteen and PX facilities, who translate as interpreters, who toil as office staff, who drive buses and operate the leisure facilities enjoyed by the world’s richest military.

In all the years since the Korean War ended with an uneasy truce in 1953, the status of these loyal workers and allies has never been in question.

Until now.  

The Korean base workers have fallen between the cracks of an ongoing disagreement between South Korea and the US over how much South Korea should pay the US for the maintenance of US Forces Korea, or USFK.

While those fraught negotiations play out, USFK has announced that, without a new budget, it will be forced to place a large tranche of its Korean workers on unpaid leave from April.

Some 4,000 are expected to be impacted by the measure

“The right of Korean employees to survive will be threatened,” Choi Eung-sik, chairman of the USFK Korean Employees Union, told a press conference on March 25. “[And] there will be a vacuum in the USFK’s mission.”

Officers’ quarters and a sports ground at the sprawling Camp Humphreys. The base, near Pyeongtakek, South Korea, is the largest US garrison outside the United States. Photo: USFK

Military monetization

A central element of US President Donald Trump’s defense platform is the demand that allies pay more. This generated tension between Seoul and Washington over the Special Measures Agreement, or SMA – the agreement that covers the amount Korea pays for the stationing of some 28,500 GIs on Korean soil, and for Korea’s wider defense under America’s Indo-Pacific nuclear umbrella.

Although the details of costings remain guarded, it is widely understood in Seoul that Washington is demanding US$4 billion, or approximately four times the amount South Korea paid the US last year.

Earlier reports from the US had Washington demanding $4.8 to $5 billion. This suggests that Washington has budged, but only moderately.

Seoul is believed to be offering a 10% rise in the annual payment. Seoul’s negotiating team says the US demand is unacceptable to the public and would not pass parliamentary ratification, while griping that America’s stance “has not changed in a big way.”

Negotiations have been tortuous.

The allies failed to reach an agreement after holding their seventh round of meetings in Los Angeles from March 17 to 19. Seoul’s lead negotiator, Chung Eun-bo, told reporters that US chief negotiator James Dehart’s demands were “unreachable.” A Korean diplomat, who spoke off the record to local media, said Washington’s attitude was “not common sense.”

A key crux is the workers. Washington’s position is that the money Seoul pays for USFK only covers the cost of Korean workers, rather than US troops.

“That money is going right back into the Korean economy and to the Korean people,” USFK Commander General Robert Abrams told local media in an interview last November. “It’s not coming to me.”

In January, USFK sent out a furlough note to workers, warning that they could face unpaid leave in April if the SMA is not concluded.

Previously, Seoul has paid 88% of the local workers’ wages. Chung revealed that in LA, his team had offered an interim deal to his US counterparts for South Korea to take full responsibility for the expense. It was rejected.

“We proposed to sign a memorandum to resolve the issue of Korean labor costs in USFK,” Chung, speaking at LA airport, said. “However, the US officially opposed it because it could be a source of delay in the main negotiations.”

Essential or non-essential?

About 12,500 Koreans work on the bases in total. According to Son Ji-oh, an office manager at the USFK Korean Employees’ Union, 4,000 face unpaid leave starting from April.

The term of the unpaid leave is indefinite.

However, “essential Korean workers” – at hospitals, fire stations, post offices and the like – will continue, and they number about 4,500. The remaining 4,000 workers work for commercial companies on the bases, so are not paid by USFK and are not impacted by the measures.

Son told Asia Times of anxieties. To his knowledge, USFK Korea has no plans for the replacement of the furloughed Korean workers because the upcoming situation is unprecedented. He also claimed that the number for “essential” workers was a loose USFK estimate.

“They set that number based on the amount of budget they received from the US government,” he said. “The phrase ‘essential worker’ is an expression used only in wartime. It makes no sense to be designated as an ‘essential worker’ in the current situation.”

Son may be correct, for the situation in Korea – while sometimes tense – does not approximate to a wartime combat zone. Conversely, it is hard to consider many of the workers’ duties as “essential” to military efforts.  

The largest US base in South Korea is the sprawling Camp Humphreys outside the town of Pyeongtaek, about 64 kilometers south of Seoul. On this base, which was largely built with South Korean funds, a plethora of cafes, restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, cinemas – even a golf course and water park – keep the morale of off-duty GIs high.

However, none of these facilities would be necessary – indeed, could be a liability – if the USFK went onto a war footing.  

Eat your hearts out, North Korean soldiers, GIs get water parks. Photo: USFK

‘Blind spot’

Those affected are unhappy, disenfranchised and critical of both governments.

“The South Korean government should find a way to support the Korean workers in USFK,” Choi Eung-sik, chairman of the USFK Korean Employees Union said at a press conference outside the South Korean presidential residence on March 25. “It is the only way to cope with the impure intention of the US.”

He insisted that Korean workers would turn up for work, even if their US superiors order them to take unpaid leave.

Son believes the US is making excessive demands.

“I have worked in USFK for 20 years,” he told Asia Times. “This has never happened in the last 70 years of US troops being stationed in South Korea, nor in the last 30 years of South Korea and the US negotiating defense costs.

“How should we take this?” Son asked. “We have no way of responding. The term ‘unpaid leave,’ which the US has used, should be understood as de facto ‘forced to leave.'”

At the demonstration, Choi commenced a hunger strike and shaved his head – a signal of spirited protest – demanding a revision to the Korea-US Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA.

SOFA is controversial. It is unpopular with the public in Korea for shielding US servicemen who commit crimes in-country from Korean justice, and became the key lighting rod for massive anti-American protests after two GIs killed two Koreans schoolgirls in a road accident in 2002.

Now, Choi says SOFA infringes on Korean labor rights. Under South Korean law, employers must provide certain payments to laid-off workers – but USFK is subject to SOFA.  

“South Korean law is pointless as the USFK does not have to care about it,” Son added. “We’re in a blind spot.”

Choi Eung-sik, chairman of the USFK Korean Employees Union, shaves his head during a protest outside the presidential Blue House in Seoul. Photo: USFK Korean Employees Union

‘Hostages’

“I cannot help feeling miserable about the way the US is trying to gain an upper hand in negotiations using Korean workers as a hostage,” Yoon Ji-won, a professor of National Security at Sangmyung University in Korea, told Asia Times

Jeong Dae-jin, a professor at the Institute of Unification at Ajou University, agreed.

“The US is putting the total burden onto Korea by saying that it cannot pay the wages of Korean workers,”Jeong told Asia Times. “This means that the US will gain the upper hand and draw the amount of defense costs they want from Korea.”

Two experts suggested that the SMA needs to be negotiated over a longer basis, and a transparent standard set for USFK cost-sharing.

“If we negotiate with the US annually in this way, our defense costs will increase every year,” Yoon said.

“My personal opinion is that we can reach a deal at around 1.5 trillion won ($1.2 billion),” Park Won-gon, a professor of International and Area studies at Handong University and member of the Korean negotiation team in 2006, told Asia Times.

“I think South Korea should ultimately change the way it negotiates the SMA with the US from one year to three or four years,” he said. “And the increase in defense costs should match the inflation rate.”

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