About half of the 9,000 South Koreans working at U.S. bases were furloughed indefinitely Wednesday in what the commander of U.S. forces in the country called the "heartbreaking" result of the impasse between the Trump administration and the Seoul government over how much to pay for the American troop presence.
"It's unthinkable, it's heartbreaking," Army Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea and the more than 28,000 U.S. troops on the peninsula, said in a Twitter post on the lapse in the Special Measures Agreement between the U.S. and South Korea that forced the unpaid furloughs.
Abrams has been effusive in his praise for the South Korean workers and their contributions to the readiness of the force; he has also lauded South Korean health care workers for their assistance to his command in battling the novel coronavirus outbreak.
"I could not have asked for a better partner" in the coronavirus fight, Abrams said in a teleconference briefing to the Pentagon on March 13.
The furloughs are "in no way a reflection of their performance, dedication or conduct," he said of the South Korean workers in his Twitter statement.
The furloughs are the first under the Special Measures Agreement (SMA), which until Wednesday had been renewed every year since 1957, according to the Seoul government.
Last summer, as part of its overall policy to get allies to pay more for their own defense, the Trump administration began pressing South Korea to pay more than the current $900 million under the SMA as its contribution to the costs of maintaining the U.S. troop presence.
In November, on a trip to Seoul, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that South Korea "is a wealthy country and could and should pay more to help offset the cost of defense."
In January, 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 was reached.
In a Feb. 21 Pentagon briefing, Rear Adm. William Byrne, vice director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, cautioned, "There will certainly be an impact to both the service members and their families" if the furloughs occurred.
"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," Byrne said, referencing the workers who provide services ranging from fire dispatch and bus driving to staffing for hospitals, post offices, maintenance crews and administration.
At a news conference Wednesday outside Camp Humphreys south of Seoul, the union representing the furloughed workers protested the U.S. action.
"The livelihoods of workers have been hit hard by the collapse of the talks with the U.S., particularly at a time when it is difficult to find day labor or part-time jobs due to the new coronavirus outbreak," the USFK Korean Employees Union said in a statement, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.