WASHINGTON — The U.S. and South Korea are on a dangerous precipice as a deadline nears to reach a new agreement to share the costs of U.S. forces garrisoned in South Korea.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper meets with his South Korean counterpart, Kyeong-doo Jeong, at the Pentagon today to avoid a sudden halt to the military cooperation and the furloughing of as many as 9,000 Korean workers from their jobs on various U.S. military installations.
The root of the dispute is President Trump’s demand that South Korea increase the $1 billion it now pays under what is called the Special Measures Agreement to $5 billion —a 400 percent increase. That infuriated Seoul as well as much of Capitol Hill.
Funding under the Special Measures Agreement technically lapsed on December 31, 2019.
“Since then…. U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) has taken the additional step to enable continuity of its operations by programming U.S. funds to sustain the salaries of its Korean National workforce,” the Pentagon said in a statement Sunday night.
“These U.S. funds will be exhausted on Tuesday, March 31, 2020, unless the ROK (Republic of Korea) government agrees to materially increase its support for U.S. forces committed to the defense of the ROK. If an agreement cannot be reached on a comprehensive new SMA, it will be necessary to furlough most KN employees on April 1, 2020, and suspend many construction and logistics activities.”
That would mean shifting some of the 28,500 U.S. combat forces into the Korean workers’ jobs, a move that would squeeze US military readiness as North Korea continues work on its nuclear program. It would also further poison the U.S.-South Korean alliance, defense analysts said.
Talks between the two countries ended on January 15 in Washington without an agreement or plan to resume negotiations.
“So 9,000 workers, that’s pretty significant,” Rear Adm. William D. Byrne Jr., vice director of the Joint Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon briefing on Wednesday. “We’re going to have to prioritize what services those workers provide. And we’re going to have to prioritize life, health, and safety. There will certainly be an impact to both the service members and their families. Most importantly, we have to focus on the mission.”
The stalemate comes as both nations face major elections later this year.
“Our forces will adapt,” Jonathan Hoffman, Pentagon spokesperson, said during the briefing. “Our focus is going to continue to be on making sure we have our warfighting capabilities.”