(ATTN: ADDS more info in paras 8-11)
By Song Sang-ho and Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, March 26 (Yonhap) -- The government is weighing the possibility of low-interest loans and other options to support South Korean employees in the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK) who face furloughs next week in the absence of a deal to fund their wages, a Seoul official said Thursday.
On Wednesday, the USFK began sending out furlough notices to the Korean employees, mostly in nonessential positions, as Seoul and Washington have yet to bridge the gaps in their monthslong negotiations on the sharing of the cost for stationing the 28,500-strong USFK.
Some 4,500-5,000 workers are expected to go on unpaid leave on April 1 unless the South and the U.S. reach a new cost-sharing deal, called the Special Measures Agreement (SMA). Last year's SMA, which called for Seoul to pay about US$870 million, expired in December.
Officials from the ministries of foreign affairs, defense, finance and labor have been involved in internal consultations over how to help the Korean workers.
"Pan-governmental discussions have been under way to support the workers, and I think the government may announce support measures when their furloughs proceed," a Seoul official told Yonhap News Agency on condition of anonymity.
The official noted difficulties in finding legal grounds to set aside an outlay from the country's defense budget to support the employees who have been working under labor contracts with the U.S. military.
"Thus, the government is weighing various other options in the name of supporting our nationals," he added.
Asked about the looming furloughs, an official at the foreign ministry said that Seoul would continue to do its utmost to hammer out a "satisfactory" solution.
"We are doing our best and continuing our efforts for progress toward a meaningful outcome before April 1," the official told reporters.
The furlough notices have demoralized Korean workers in the USFK.
"We cannot even look at each other's eyes, as those notified of furlough plans feel deeply dismayed while those spared the furloughs feel saddened by their fellows' frustration," a USFK employee told Yonhap.
In the latest round of negotiations with the U.S. in Los Angeles earlier this month, Seoul proposed a separate arrangement to first address the wages of the Korean workers. But Washington opposed that proposal, saying it could further delay negotiations to reach a comprehensive SMA.
The U.S. is believed to have revised its initial demand for an increase in Seoul's payments to $5 billion downward. But Seoul officials say the reduced amount is still unrealistically high.