Troops in South Korea Could Face Loss of Services as Governments Argue over Funding

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Minister of National Defense of South Korea Jeong Kyeong-doo
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Minister of National Defense of South Korea Jeong Kyeong-doo hold a press briefing with Korean and American news outlets after the Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 15, 2019. (DoD photo/Nicole Mejia)

U.S. troops and their families would face a loss of services with the possible furlough of 9,000 South Korean civilians who work on bases, unless the long-running dispute over how much South Korea pays for the U.S. military presence is resolved, according to Pentagon officials.

The issue is expected to be at the top of the agenda for a Pentagon meeting Monday between Defense Secretary Mark Esper and South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, Pentagon chief spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said at a news briefing Wednesday.

"We've got to work through the agreement for funding of forces, so that will obviously be a topic we will discuss," he said.

"We're going to continue to negotiate and try to find a solution" while working against an April 1 deadline for furloughs, Hoffman added, but no matter the outcome "our forces will adapt" to maintain readiness.

Related: Daegu Army Base Imposes Self-Quarantine After South Korean Church Linked to Coronavirus

The Trump administration last summer began pressing Seoul for a huge increase in funding for the existing "special measures agreement" -- from about $900 million to $5 billion annually -- to offset the costs of maintaining about 28,500 U.S. troops on the peninsula.

In a trip to Seoul in November, Esper said that South Korea "is a wealthy country and could and should pay more to help offset the cost of defense," but U.S. officials suggested that the $5 billion demand is an opening bid to bargaining.

"There will certainly be an impact to both the service members and their families" if furloughs occur for 9,000 civilians, who provide services ranging from fire dispatch and bus driving to staffing for hospitals, post offices, maintenance crews and administration, said Rear Adm. William Byrne, vice director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff.

"So 9,000 workers, that's pretty significant," Byrne said at the news briefing with Hoffman, "and there are options -- big, medium, small, if you will -- with respect to numbers" in the event of furloughs.

"So if needed, we're going to have to prioritize what services those workers provide, and we're going to have to prioritize life, health and safety," he added.

Last month, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) sent out notices to the civilian workers that the cost-sharing agreement between the U.S. and South Korea had expired Dec. 31 and furloughs could occur on April 1 unless a new agreement is negotiated.

"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," USFK said in a Jan. 28 statement.

"Without the Republic of Korea's continued commitment to share the cost of employing our Korean National workforce, USFK will soon exhaust programmed funds available to pay their salaries and wages," the statement said.

The cost-sharing dispute comes as USFK is taking extra precautions against the spread of the novel coronavirus.

On Wednesday, Army Gen. Robert Abrams, USFK commander, announced that service members in South Korea who had attended the evangelical New World Church in Daegu over the previous 10 days would have to undergo a mandatory self-quarantine to monitor for symptoms of coronavirus.

"We must protect the force and our community by maintaining our 'Fight Tonight' readiness," Abrams said in a statement.

South Korean authorities have focused on the church and a hospital in the southern city of Daegu as possible sources of coronavirus infection.

On Friday, South Korea reported the second death of a coronavirus patient, the country's Yonhap news agency reported.

The Korea Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) also reported 100 new cases of the novel coronavirus, bringing the total number to 204. Thus far, there have been no cases of coronavirus among the 28,500 U.S. troops or their family members in South Korea.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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