(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. military is set to put almost half of its 8,500 South Korean civilian workers on furlough, as the two sides bicker over the Trump administration’s demands for a massive increase in troop funding.
About 4,000 workers have been told not to report to American military bases in South Korea as of Wednesday, if the two countries can’t find some way to extend a cost-sharing deal that expired Dec. 31. A breakthrough seems unlikely with President Donald Trump asking for as much as a five-fold increase and South Korea showing no signs of paying anywhere near that much.
The furloughs, which the Hankyoreh newspaper said would be the first of their kind, will put new pressure on an alliance that Trump has repeatedly criticized since taking office three years ago. The move comes as the U.S. military struggles to keep coronavirus outbreaks from disrupting operations in South Korea and elsewhere and the allies watch for fresh provocations from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The two sides have been deadlocked over what’s known as the Special Measures Agreement, with Trump initially demanding about $5 billion a year from South Korea to pay for U.S. security. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has indicated that it wouldn’t pay much more than the almost $1 billion it agreed to in a one-year stopgap deal in 2019.
South Korea’s lead negotiator, Jeong Eun-bo, said in a statement Tuesday that the two sides were in the “final steps” of negotiations and expressed regret that the U.S. government went ahead with the furlough.
“If the Trump administration persists in holding to this level of unreasonable demands it will seriously damage the reliability and credibility of our security alliance,” said Daniel Sneider, a lecturer in international policy at Stanford University who has written about how Japanese and Koreans view their shared history. “It feeds a strain of Korean nationalism that would want to effectively end the alliance and perhaps bring Korea, de facto, under the security umbrella of China.”
In the short term, the furloughs of workers, who provide services ranging from security to manning food stations, could mean further disruptions to daily life on bases that serve some 28,000 U.S. service personnel in South Korea. In the longer term, the dispute could accelerate a realignment of an alliance that the U.S. relies on to check China, as well as North Korea.
Trump has repeatedly insisted that the U.S. gets a raw deal from partners who host American troops around the world, and he’s focused particular ire on the South Korean agreement. Last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told his counterpart, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, that “as a global economic powerhouse and an equal partner in the preservation of peace on the peninsula, South Korea can and should contribute more to its defense.”
South Korea’s National Assembly must sign off on any deal and Trump’s demands have brought about a rare moment of unity from progressives and conservatives in the country who see them as unreasonable. With parliamentary elections set for April 15, siding with Washington could lead to defeat at the ballot box.
“We are currently trying our best to ensure our joint defense posture goes unhindered as well to protect our Korean workers,” South Korean Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said. The USFK Korean Employees Union, which represents the workers, said in a statement last week that negotiations “cannot end with the way the U.S. government and President Trump wants.”
Negotiators from the U.S. and South Korea met earlier this month in Los Angeles but a wide gap remains between the two sides, according to a State Department spokesman who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations. The official said that South Korea will need to show more focus and flexibility to reach a deal, without specifying what the U.S. is asking or what South Korea is offering.
While the U.S. and South Korea have been bargaining, North Korea has been busy testing new types of solid-fuel, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles designed to strike anywhere on the peninsula and evade U.S. interceptors. It has fired off at least nine in March alone, a record for a month.
Kim warned on Dec. 31 that bigger provocations could soon come, saying he was no longer bound by a previous promise to halt testing of nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. On Monday, a top diplomat was quoted in a state media report issuing a new threat, saying Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s pressure campaign against Pyongyang will result in North Korea looking “to repay the U.S. with actual horror and unrest for the sufferings it has inflicted upon our people.”
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The negotiations in South Korea could affect other U.S. allies hosting troops, such as Japan, with Esper saying the Trump administration wants them to pay more, too. Japanese officials are watching the South Korea negotiations closely with the approach of talks set to begin later this year for a U.S-Japan cost-sharing deal.
Daniel Pinkston, a lecturer in international relations at Troy University in Seoul and a former Korean linguist with the U.S. Air Force, said the difficulty in reaching a troop-funding deal “sends the wrong signal to allies, competitors, and challengers who must be questioning U.S. commitments and resolve.”
“It increases the likelihood of miscalculation, arms-racing, WMD proliferation, and even armed conflict,” Pinkston said.
(Updates with South Korean statement in fifth paragraph.)
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