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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
South Korea and the U.S. need to “remain flexible” on joint military drills in order to not close off the possibility of making diplomatic progress in denuclearization negotiations with the North, the U.S. Secretary of Defense stressed on Friday.
Speaking during a joint news conference following the 51st Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in Seoul, Pentagon chief Mark Esper said he and his South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo had held “a series of productive discussions today on a variety of important issues.”
One of these topics, he said, was efforts “to maintain a robust and combined defense posture and the strengthened coordination toward achieving the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”
“In support of these ends, we remain resolute in our enforcement of the United Nations Security Council resolutions,” he said.
The meeting comes as North Korea has ratcheted up rhetoric in opposition to upcoming joint ROK-U.S. air combat drills, aimed to serve as a scaled-down alternative to the previous Vigilant Ace exercise.
Speaking following talks Friday, Esper stressed that “the purposes of the exercises and training are to, first of all, ensure the readiness of the ROK and U.S. forces to deter, and, if necessary, defeat our adversaries.”
“The purpose of our armed forces and our exercises is not only to buttress our diplomacy but to also enable and empower it,” he continued. “So we always have to remain flexible in terms of how we support our diplomats to ensure that we do not close any doors that may allow forward progress on the diplomatic front.”
Due to their alliance dating back “many many decades,” Esper said, the two countries should always proceed decision-making process “in a consultative manner with one another.”
The Secretary of Defense on Wednesday also suggested he would be open to adjustments in military activity on the Korean peninsula “if it helped enable diplomats, who are trying to jump-start stalled peace efforts with North Korea.”
North Korea the following day directly responded to those remarks, with high-profile official Kim Yong Chol saying they “reflected the intention of President Trump, and [we] appreciate it as part of positive efforts of the U.S. side to preserve the motive force of the DPRK-U.S. negotiations.”
But the statement also warned that the North would “be compelled to answer with shocking punishment that would difficult for the U.S. to cope with” should “hostile provocations” continued.
And, amid a now months-long stalemate in nuclear diplomacy between the two countries, the North on Wednesday said that the situation on the peninsula stood to worsen should joint military drills go ahead.
In an authoritative statement issued by the DPRK’s State Affairs Commission (SAC), a spokesperson said joint military exercises are the “biggest factor of the repeating vicious cycle of the DPRK-U.S. relations,” warning that the U.S. could face a “greater threat” should it not change course.
SUPPORT DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS, BUT MAINTAIN READINESS
Speaking at the news conference on Friday, the South Korean defense minister also said the militaries had reaffirmed their “shared goal of complete denuclearization of North Korea and permanent peace settlement on the Korean peninsula.”
“While firmly maintaining the military readiness posture, we agreed to militarily support the diplomatic efforts of the governments of the two countries,” Jeong told assembled media.
“To that end, the ROK and the U.S. agreed to work together for the resumption of dialogue with North Korea and complete implementation of the military agreement of September 19.”
Jeong said Seoul and Washington had exchanged views on issues including the North’s recent missile test-launches and “discussed countermeasures” and had “reaffirmed the U.S.’s continued commitment to providing extended deterrence for the Republic of Korea.”
The two countries, he added, had approved the outcome of the verification of the initial operational capability (IOC) of the Future Combined Forces Command, conducted in August as part of plans to transfer wartime operational control (OPCON) to the South.
“Based on this, we will work together closely to push forward the verification of the full operational capability (FOC) in 2020.”
DISCREPANCIES BETWEEN SEOUL AND WASHINGTON REMAIN, HOWEVER
But despite the shared goals between the two countries, there continue to be discrepancies between the South and the U.S. over pending issues, including ongoing defense-cost sharing talks.
The South Korean defense minister said he and Esper had agreed that the defense-cost sharing should be agreed to “at a level that is fair and mutually agreeable,” and that he hoped the two countries would reach an agreement “to the extent that the ROK-U.S. alliance can well-develop continuously.”
Esper, however, said: “It is crucial that we conclude the 11th SMA (Special Measures Agreement) with increased burden-sharing by the Republic of Korea before the end of the year.”
“This is a very strong alliance we have, but Korea is a wealthy country and could and should pay more to help offset the cost of defense,” he added.
“And the case of Korea, which has provided a fair amount of support in the past, but it is important to note that most of that money stays here in the country,” he continued. “Easily over 90 percent of that funding stays here in Korea. It does not go to the United States.”
Esper also reiterated Washington’s position on the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between Seoul and Tokyo, which is set to expire at midnight on November 22 following South Korea’s decision to withdraw from the pact in August.
“GSOMIA is an important tool, by which Korea, the United States, and Japan share effective and timely information, particularly in times of war,” he said.
The U.S., he added, has already asked both sides to “sit down and work through their differences” in consideration of the impact that the expiration of GSOMIA would have on military planning.
“The only ones who benefit from expiration of GSOMIA and continued friction between Seoul and Tokyo are Pyongyang and Beijing,” Esper said, echoing recent comments by chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Mark Milley.
“That reason alone should be powerful enough for all of us to sit down and make sure we restore our alliance and partnership to where it was, and so we work together to deal with our common threats and challenges.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: U.S. Department of Defense