US infantry in Korea show off their equipment. The lockout of base workers is an unprecedented blow to the US alliance with South Korea. Photo: AFP

US Forces Korea, or USFK, today placed some 4,222 Korean workers on indefinite unpaid leave, pending the outcome of defense cost-sharing measures negotiations between Seoul and Washington.

While there have often been storms in the alliance – notably in 2002, when mass protests took place after two Korean schoolgirls were killed in a traffic accident with US troops – today’s unprecedented step points to a broad cleft between the long-term allies.

Seoul and Washington have been unable to agree this year’s “Special Measures Agreement,” or SMA , which covers the costs South Korea pays the US for the protection afforded by USFK and the wider US nuclear umbrella in the Pacific.  

Though minimal information has crept out of negotiations, the US side is reportedly demanding a three-five fold increase from the South Korean side.

‘It’s unthinkable’

“This is an unfortunate day for us…its unthinkable…it’s heartbreaking,” said USFK’s commander in chief, General Robert B “Abe” Abrams in a filmed message that was also sent to foreign reporters in South Korea. “The partial furlough of Korean employees is not what we envisioned or hoped what would happen.”

 Abrams continued, “These are our employees, our co-workers, our teammates, and we consider them family. They are vital to our mission and to the [South Korea]-US alliance.”

Some 12,500 Koreans work on the bases that are home to the 28,500-strong USFK, as well as other US units that regularly rotate into and out of the country.

Among the workers, approximately 4,000 are considered “essential.” Another 4,000 are paid by commercial companies, so are unaffected by the furloughs as their salaries are not sourced from USFK budgets. The 4, 222 furloughed are considered non-essential employees.

USFK did not respond to Asia Times’ questions on how the locked-out workers’ duties will be covered during their indefinite leaves.

Given the two capitals’ failure to sign the SMA, furloughs had been signaled from the beginning of this year, but since yesterday, strong  rumors – some reported by high-profile media citing undisclosed diplomatic sources – circulated in Seoul alleging that the SMA had, finally, been agreed.

A last-minute agreement might well have reversed today’s furlough. The rumors, however, proved unfounded.

A spokesperson for Seoul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Asia Times only that there were hopes that an agreement could be reached “as soon as possible.”

That sounds hopeful, but prior events suggest that a vast reservoir of clear water separates the two capitals.

For one thing, no agreement has yet been reached in seven rounds of SMA negotiations, the last of which took place in Los Angeles last month.

For another, according to multiple unsourced reports in Korean media, the US side has lowered its negotiating demands from approximately $5 billion to approximately $3-$4 billion, but Seoul is holding out for not more than a 10% cost increase over last year’s payments.

Last year, Seoul paid Washington just shy of $1 billion in the SMA.

What next?

The issue has generated significant ill will in South Korea, with some USFK employees and some local media dubbing the workers “hostages” to the SMA talks.

Affected members of the USFK Employees Union were furious. “We are sick of the unclear words by both governments,” Son Ji-ho, an office manager at the USFK Korean Employees’ Union, told Asia Times.

Son also complained about the South Korean government’s promise that the workers would be taken care of, despite no deal having been reached.

Employees donned black vests and red headbands to demonstrate outside the gates of the huge, Korea-funded base Camp Humphreys, outside the port of Pyeongtaek, 70 km south of Seoul, today.

“The livelihoods of workers have been hit hard by the collapse of the talks with the US, particularly at a time when it is difficult to find day labor or part-time jobs due to the new coronavirus outbreak,” a union representative said during the protest, according to local reports. “This will also have a clear impact on the local economy around US bases.”

Seoul and Washington continue to discuss the cost-sharing dispute through diplomatic channels.

Meanwhile, it is far from clear what further economies USFK, or possibly wider US forces in the Indo-Pacific, might resort to if no cost-sharing agreement is reached over the longer term.