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Korean employees locked out of US bases in Korea

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.

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