Wednesday marked the first day of a furlough of roughly half the 9,000-strong Korean workforce staffing U.S. military bases in South Korea. The layoffs without pay — the first in the history of the seven-decade U.S.-South Korea alliance — were forced by an impasse between the two countries on paying for the cost of stationing some 28,500 American troops in South Korea.
"This is an unfortunate day for us ... it's unthinkable ... it's heartbreaking," USFK Commander Gen. Robert B. Abrams said in a statement. "The partial furlough of [Korean national] employees is not what we envisioned or hoped what would happen."
U.S. Forces Korea sent formal notices to the affected employees on March 25. The furloughs complicate matters for USFK as it grapples with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. USFK has more than a dozen cases of infection, including troops, dependents and contractors.
A statement from the USFK Korean Employees Union deplored the furloughs as a betrayal of the spirit of the alliance, and noted that they come just days after President Trump urgently requested COVID-19 test kits from South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The first batch of those kits reportedly was awaiting air shipment to the U.S. on Tuesday.
South Korea's government is reportedly mulling ways to support the furloughed employees, including loans to make up for their loss of income. Korean employees such as doctors, firefighters and law enforcement personnel will not be furloughed.
Abrams has warned the furlough will affect USFK's military readiness. The coronavirus outbreak has already forced the cancellation or scaling back of joint military exercises, and the Korean military has infections among its own ranks to treat.
North Korea, meanwhile, continues to test new rockets and missiles, even as it claims to have no COVID-19 cases at all.
The U.S.-South Korea impasse that forced the furloughs emerged when the Trump administration demanded significantly higher payments from Seoul to cover the cost of U.S. troops in South Korea.
South Korean negotiator Jeong Eun-bo said in a statement on Tuesday that Seoul and Washington had "considerably bridged the gap between the two sides" and that an agreement could be made soon.
The U.S. has reportedly backed away from a demand for a roughly 500% increase in Seoul's contribution to defense costs. For 2019, the U.S. demanded a 50% increase, but then settled for 8.2%.
Critics in South Korea say the Trump administration is turning military alliances into for-profit enterprises — a grave mistake, they say, as the U.S. is already saving taxpayers money by basing troops overseas, not to mention the political and strategic payoffs of deploying troops in or near global hot spots, including the Korean Peninsula.