SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - The U.S. military in South Korea, whose motto is “Ready to Fight Tonight,” has been forced into battles on two nontraditional fronts: a highly contagious virus that is spreading rapidly throughout the country, and the looming threat that thousands of South Korean workers on U.S. bases could soon be furloughed because of a cost-sharing dispute with Seoul.
U.S. Forces Korea this week placed its bases on high alert after a service member and two other people who had visited the base contracted the coronavirus. In response, the U.S. and South Korea quickly postponed planned joint military exercises, imposed temperature checks and other measures for those entering base, and restricted off-base travel for troops.
Separately, the U.S. military said Friday it had notified 9,000 of its Korean employees they could be furloughed in 30 days, if the U.S. and South Korea fail to reach a deal on how to split the cost of the U.S. military presence.
U.S. military officials say they are confident they can contain the virus and are searching for alternative funding sources to delay the furlough but some experts warn the twin threats could affect morale on U.S. bases and hurt the U.S.-South Korea relationship.
“U.S. forces in Korea, and the alliance, are under significant pressure. At a certain point, morale and battlefield effectiveness will start to be impacted,” Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official focused on Asia, said.
Some Korean workers on U.S. bases agree.
“It’s just demoralizing,” said one local employee at Camp Humphreys, the largest U.S. base in South Korea. The employee, who did not provide a name because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said he was “confused, frustrated and disappointed” about the possibility of being furloughed.
“I love working for USFK, but maybe I need to look for another job,” he said.
The most urgent concern for many is the coronavirus outbreak, which has exploded across South Korea over the past 10 days. South Korea now has more confirmed coronavirus cases than any other country except China, where the virus originated.
In some ways, communities such as military bases could be particularly susceptible, because the virus could spread more easily among people living in close quarters, said Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“When you have a lot of people living in close proximity, there’s just more likelihood that they can come in contact with the virus through being near somebody who’s coughing or sneezing or touching contaminated surfaces,” Nuzzo said.
Since many U.S. military personnel frequently travel, there is an added danger that the virus could spread to U.S. bases around the world.
As a precaution, the U.S. military in South Korea has severely restricted off-base travel for service members. The military has also prepared hundreds of rooms inside isolated barracks for personnel who may need to quarantine themselves. Each soldier would have his or her own fully equipped room, which would include amenities such as private bathrooms, refrigerators, and WiFi.
U.S. Army Colonel Lee Peters, a spokesman for U.S. Forces Korea, told VOA it is difficult to estimate the number of U.S. troops who have been isolated because there are multiple levels of quarantine. He said officials are for now emphasizing personal hygiene and other basic preventative measures.
“It doesn’t look like it’s impacting the young, the vibrant, the healthy. And that’s what we are in the military,” Peters said. “We are strong. We are resilient. We are prepared to fight any enemy.”
Peters said the U.S. military in Korea currently does not have the capability to test for the coronavirus. Instead, tests of U.S. personnel are going through the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though officials should soon receive their own testing kits from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Peters said.
U.S. military officials in Korea are also dealing with the effects of a contentious cost-sharing dispute between Washington and Seoul. U.S. President Donald Trump has demanded that South Korea increase its contribution by five times.
Since the latest cost-sharing deal expired at the end of the year, U.S. officials say “residual funds” have been used for the salaries of Korean civilian employees, who work in areas such logistics, administration, and food service. That money will soon run out and furloughs will begin April 1 without an agreement. U.S. military officials say they are still trying to determine who would be subject to the furlough.
Even after six rounds of talks, the U.S. and South Korea are showing few signs of making major concessions. Instead, both sides are taking their own steps to relieve pressure in the event no deal is reached.
The Pentagon this week insisted it will continue to fund what it deems critical USFK cost-sharing contracts and key positions that “that provide health, safety and readiness services.”
South Korea’s Foreign Affairs Ministry Friday declared Trump’s latest offer unacceptable but it proposed to first resolve the issue of Korean employees’ wages while broader negotiations continue.
Neither country appears to have much political space to maneuver, in part because South Korean legislative elections are just weeks away and Trump is embarking on his own reelection campaign.
“I do think it will hurt the alliance because it undermines trust and reliability,” warned James Schoff, who focuses on U.S. policy in Asia as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“These new U.S. demands are a product of one thing — Trump — and they have not been well explained or signaled over time. ... We don’t know yet how long this will go on and how nasty it might get,” he said.