Thousands of South Korean staff face forced leave at US military bases

A US-South Korea joint river crossing exercise in the border county of Yeoncheon. The US and South Korea remain at an impasse over how they share the cost of funding US troops there. (AFP)
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Updated 30 January 2020

Thousands of South Korean staff face forced leave at US military bases

  • US Forces Korea (USFK) issued 60-day potential furlough notices to 9,000 South Korean employees at US military installations
  • Cost-sharing negotiations between the allied nations remain deadlocked, with the US demanding the South pay $4.7 billion in host-nation support

SEOUL: A dispute over a cost-sharing scheme for maintaining US troops in South Korea has put local staff at risk of losing their jobs.

On Tuesday the US Forces Korea (USFK) issued 60-day potential furlough notices to 9,000 South Korean employees at US military installations, where about 28,000 American soldiers are stationed to help safeguard the South against military threats from North Korea.

“United States Forces began providing Korean national employees today with a 60-day notice of a potential administrative furlough that could occur on April 1, 2020,” USFK said in a statement.

Cost-sharing negotiations between the allied nations remain deadlocked, with the US demanding the South pay $4.7 billion in host-nation support, nearly five times more than Seoul’s contribution of about $870 million last year.

US President Donald Trump insists the South stump up more money for shared security burdens, calling the country wealthy.

“Without the Republic of Korea’s continued commitment to share the cost of employing our Korean national workforce, USFK will soon exhaust programmed funds available to pay their salaries and wages,” the USFK statement read.

“We don’t blame our government,” Kang Tae-wook, secretary general of the policy bureau at the USFK Employee Union, told Arab News. “The current impasse over the cost-sharing issue is because America’s demand is out of the existing agreement’s framework. There were a few times when the USFK gave potential furlough notices to South Korean workers at US bases. This year, they notified each worker individually. That means they are more serious than before.”  

Union members have pledged to continue working at their bases even if they are not paid.

“This is a security-related issue,” Kang added. “We will keep working without payment for the security of this country. We hope both governments will strike a deal in a reasonable, fair and mutually acceptable manner in the near future.”

There is concern about livelihoods, however.

“If this is prolonged by several months, our homes will be disrupted,” Lee Jae-soo, a 48-year-old security guard at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi province, told Arab News. “Even American soldiers and friends here are worried about the current situation.” He added that the problem was political and not related to “the friendship between the people of Korea and America.”

Most of the South Korean workers provide administrative and technical support to US service personnel and their salaries have been covered by their country’s contribution.

A furlough could jeopardize the security of US bases, as well as the defense readiness of the allied forces.

“Without the normal operation of base facilities, unit training and readiness would be affected, as service members would have to be assigned to roles outside their duties,” a USFK official who requested anonymity told Arab News.

The presence of US troops in South Korea is regarded as a deterrent to aggression from the North, which is armed with a nuclear arsenal and conventional weapon systems. Under a wartime operational scenario, the US military is supposed to draw up to 690,000 American personnel from outside the Korean Peninsula.

Meanwhile, major US-South Korean military drills have been suspended since a Singapore meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in April 2018.


Cross-class marriage urged to tackle Indonesia poverty

Updated 21 February 2020

Cross-class marriage urged to tackle Indonesia poverty

  • Country ranks sixth among those with greatest wealth inequality: Oxfam

JAKARTA: A senior Indonesian minister has suggested that poor people should marry someone of higher social status to reduce poverty.

Muhadjir Effendy, the coordinating minister for human development and cultural affairs, told a meeting on the national health program in Jakarta on Wednesday that he would ask Religious Affairs Minister Fachrul Razi — who also attended the meeting — to issue an edict recommending the move.

Effendy said that the edict could prevent the emergence of “new poor households” and provide Indonesia’s majority Muslim community with a new interpretation of the principle that one should marry a person with a compatible socioeconomic background for the sake of equivalence (kaf’ah) between prospective spouses.

The principle, he said, makes poor people marry among themselves and “automatically give birth to a new poor household.”

The minister on Thursday clarified that his intention with the “intermezzo” statement was to kick-start a social movement to break the cycle of poverty in Indonesia.

Indonesia’s poverty rate declined to below 10 percent for the first time in the country’s history, in September 2019, according to the latest data available from the Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS).

The BPS sets the poverty line at $32.13 per person per month, or an average of $1.07 per day.

FASTFACT

President Joko Widodo frequently requests his ministers to come up with ideas to accelerate the anti-poverty programs and close the country’s income inequality gap.

President Joko Widodo frequently requests his ministers to come up with ideas to accelerate the implementation of poverty alleviation programs and close the country’s income inequality gap, which has widened over the past 20 years.

In September, the level of inequality in Indonesia measured by the Gini coefficient stood at 0.380, improving by 0.004 points from the previous year, according to the BPS. The index ranges from 0 to 1, with 0 representing perfect equality and 1 representing perfect inequality.

An Oxfam report in 2017 showed that in the past two decades, the gap between the richest and the rest of the population in Indonesia had grown faster than in any other country in Southeast Asia. Indonesia is ranked sixth among the countries with greatest wealth inequality, according to the UK-based NGO.

Oxfam said that the four richest men in Indonesia have more wealth than the poorest 100 million people. Inequality is slowing down poverty reduction, dampening economic growth and threatening social cohesion, it said.

However, economists said that suggesting the poor pursue a Cinderella story to graduate from their low-socioeconomic status was not the solution that Indonesia needed to reduce poverty and tackle income inequality.

“How would the state manage such domestic affairs? Even parents could not choose for their children,” Enny Sri Hartati, a senior researcher at the Institute for Development of Economics and Finance (Indef), told Arab News on Thursday.

Indef Deputy Director Eko Listiyanto said that there was no guarantee that Effendy’s proposal, if approved, would be effective in tackling poverty. “There is no urgency for such an edict . . . the root of the problem lies with the issuance of economic policies that widen inequality as they only benefit a small group in the society,” he said.

Listiyanto said that the government was unable to drive upward mobility as the majority of its policies revolved around populism rather than empowerment. He called on the government to stop making regulations that served only oligarchs.

“It would be better to improve the national education system to prepare the next generation for their economic leap. That move would be far more sustainable compared with issuing the marriage edict,” he said.

Pieter Abdullah Redjalam, research director of the Center of Reform on Economics (CORE) Indonesia, said that Effendy’s idea of a cross-class marriage edict showed that he was out of touch with reality.

“He seems to forget that there is a very wide gap between the poor and the rich,” Redjalam said. “The poor are generally trapped in the poverty cycle. They cannot go to school, so they stay poor.”

Redjalam echoed Listiyanto’s recommendation of opening access to and improving the quality of Indonesia’s education system to reduce poverty in the long term. “It is a shame if the former education minister does not understand that,” he said, referring to Effendy.