January 29, 2020 / 3:05 AM / 24 days ago

U.S. military warns South Korean workers of potential leave amid prolonged talks

SEOUL (Reuters) - The U.S. military said it has begun notifying nearly 9,000 South Korean workers that they will be put on leave starting April if Seoul and Washington fail to reach a deal on sharing costs for the upkeep of 28,500 U.S. soldiers in South Korea.

The two countries have held six rounds of talks but have been unable to reach an agreement due to differences over Washington’s demand for a sharp hike in Seoul’s contribution for this year.

The current agreement technically expired at the end of 2019, but the U.S. military was using “residual funds” in efforts to minimize the impact on the workers, U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris has said.

The U.S. Forces in Korea (USFK) said it began to send “furlough letters” to employees on Tuesday in line with U.S. law requiring 60 days notice.

“Without the Republic of Korea’s continued commitment to share the cost of employing our Korean National workforce, USFK will soon exhaust programed funds available to pay their salaries and wages,” it said in a statement.

U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly said South Korea should bear more of the burden for hosting the troops, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

Washington demanded up to $5 billion a year, more than five times what Seoul agreed to pay last year under a one-year deal, but Harris said it has “compromised” on its numbers and hoped South Korea will also make an adjusted offer.

South Korean officials have said the U.S. demand was “out of the existing agreement’s framework” and any deal should be “reasonable, fair and mutually acceptable.”

The salaries of some 8,700 employees who provide administrative, technical and other services for the U.S. military has typically been covered by about 70 percent of South Korea’s contribution.

Reporting by Sangmi Cha; editing by Richard Pullin

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