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US congressmen call for solution to avoid unpaid leave for USFK workers

USFK Commander Robert Abrams (USFK-Yonhap)
USFK Commander Robert Abrams (USFK-Yonhap)

Two members of the US House of Representatives on Wednesday called on Washington to find a way to avoid putting South Korean civilians employed by US Forces Korea on unpaid leave.

On Feb. 28, the US military said it had started notifying nearly 9,000 South Korean employees at USFK that they could be put on unpaid leave starting April 1 because of Seoul and Washington’s failure to reach an agreement in their defense cost-sharing negotiations.

In a letter sent Wednesday to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Reps. Amerish Bera and Theodore Yoho said the unpaid leave would affect US military readiness here.

The legislators said the US should avoid elevating risk when it was striving to contain the coronavirus pandemic and assessing North Korea’s latest rocket launches this month.

South Korea had earlier offered the US a separate memorandum of understanding to address the salaries of South Korean nationals working for USFK, in case they could not come to an agreement in time.

The US rejected the proposal, saying side negotiations would forestall a reciprocal, comprehensive Special Measures Agreement.

Vincent Brooks, former commander of USFK, warned of the ramifications of a prolonged impasse.

“This is about obligation of authority. And trying to play a game of chicken if you will where one side waits to see of any one is going to flinch or move first will be very damaging to the alliance,” the commander told Voice of America.

Alexander Vershbow, former US ambassador to Korea, shared similar concerns.

“Both sides are playing hard to get and wanting the other side to make a move. But time is growing short in terms of the furloughs and the potential for this to get worse before it gets better,” he told VOA.

The former US diplomat said Washington had chosen the “path of brinkmanship,” and that Seoul was in the “uncomfortable position” of negotiating under pressure, especially ahead of its general elections in April.

By Choi Si-young (