U.S., South Korea seek last-minute deal as thousands of civilian workers face April 1 furlough

President Trump wants South Korea to pay $5 billion to support the U.S. military presence for 2020, five times more than the South Koreans paid in 2019.
Image: U.S. and South Korean soldiers watch a drill at the Seungjin Fire Training Field near Seoul in 2017.
U.S. and South Korean soldiers watch a drill at the Seungjin Fire Training Field near Seoul in 2017.Jung Yeon-Je / AFP via Getty Images file

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By Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee

WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo headed to the White House on Tuesday morning in an effort to keep thousands of South Korean civilians who work for the U.S. military in South Korea from being furloughed on Wednesday, April 1, according to two U.S. defense officials.

The U.S. and South Korean government have been in a stand-off for months over this year's Special Measures Agreement (SMA), under which the U.S. military is deployed to the Korean Peninsula and often referred to as the burden-sharing agreement because it dictates how much money the South Korean government will contribute to the U.S. military deployment.

President Donald Trump wants President Moon Jae-in's government to pay $5 billion for 2020, five times more than the South Koreans paid in 2019, according to U.S. defense officials familiar with the discussions. The South Koreans have refused.

Without an agreement, the U.S. military announced it would have to furlough about 9,000 South Korean civilian employees on April 1. The current funding agreement between the two countries expired at the end of 2019, but the U.S. has been using reserve funds to pay the employees since.

Esper authorized funding of key life, health, safety, and readiness positions, so roughly 4,500 Korean national employees will stay on the job at least temporarily. The other 4,500 would be furloughed.

Two U.S. officials said the two sides are working on an interim agreement that could delay the furloughs.

"Furloughs of Korean National employees paid through the SMA are an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence of an expired SMA. Without an SMA, the U.S. and ROK lack the legal framework needed to conduct cost-sharing for labor, logistics, and construction, all of which support the defense of the ROK," said Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman, using the initials for the Republic of South Korea. "The sooner the U.S. and ROK can reach agreement, the better. However, we are certain the State Department will not rush to a bad agreement. We need the right agreement which provides for fair and equitable burden sharing."

A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

On Monday, U.S. Forces Korea announced that a contractor who works at Camp Humphreys tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total number of positive cases among people assigned to U.S. Forces Korea to just over a dozen.