SEOUL: The new defense chief of the US held talks with South Korean diplomatic and military representatives on Friday to discuss North Korea and cost-sharing for the armed forces.
The visit by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper came after North Korea test-fired several short-range ballistic missiles and multiple-launch guided rockets toward the waters off the eastern coast of the Korean Peninsula in recent weeks, an apparent move to defy US-South Korean joint military exercises that began on Aug. 5.
In a meeting with his South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo, Esper made it clear that international sanctions against the North would remain intact before the communist state ended all of its nuclear weapons programs as agreed by the leaders of the US and North Korea in Singapore last year.
“(The US) will remain resolute in the enforcement of the UN Security Council resolutions until the North engages in the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Esper, sworn in as the US defense chief on July 23, said at the start of talks with Jeong at Seoul’s Ministry of National Defense.
“As President Trump has made clear, the US is willing to engage diplomatically with North Korea to make progress on all commitments made in the Singapore joint statement for diplomacy,” the former defense industry lobbyist said.
Denuclearization talks have stalled after the Hanoi summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un collapsed in February.
The leaders held a surprise meeting in June at the truce village of Panmunjom within the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas when the US commander-in-chief was visiting South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Seoul.
At the time, Trump and Kim agreed to resume working-level negotiations within a month, but the disarmament talks have yet to take place.
Instead, Pyongyang has fired newly developed missiles and rockets three times in less than two weeks, from July 25 to Aug. 2.
The projectiles have been confirmed to be short-range ballistic missiles similar to Russia’s Iskander, and a larger-caliber tactical guided multiple-launch rocket system.
Both are believed to be capable of hitting targets across the South, including US military bases and an air base of F-35 stealth fighter jets for the South Korean Air Force.
Trump, however, has played down the significance of the missile and rocket launches.
“The missiles tests are not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement, nor was the discussion of short-range missiles when we shook hands,” Trump tweeted following the Aug. 2 test-firing of two Iskander-class missiles designed to penetrate the missile defense shield in the South.
Esper described the alliance of the US and South Korea as “ironclad,” calling it “the linchpin of peace and security” in Northeast Asia as well as on the peninsula.
Minister Jeong underlined the importance of the alliance at a time when South Korea was dealing with difficulties including the simmering feud with Japan, which has restricted high-tech chip-making materials to South Korea amid a diplomatic confrontation over compensation for South Korean forced workers during Japan’s colonial rule between 1910 and 1945.
In retaliation, South Korea is considering severing a military information agreement with Japan, part of the trilateral alliance of the US, South Korea and Japan.
“I hope South Korean and the US defense authorities continue to cooperate closely to overcome such difficulties while maintaining the strong combined defense posture,” the minister said.
Esper’s visit also coincides with Trump administration pressure over sharing the costs of keeping 28,500 American troops in South Korea.
“South Korea has agreed to pay substantially more money to the United States in order to defend itself from North Korea,” Trump wrote in a Twitter post on Wednesday. “South Korea is a very wealthy nation that now feels an obligation to contribute to the military defense provided by the United States of America.”
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry has denied the defense cost-sharing talks have started officially, but said that negotiations would proceed “in a reasonable and fair manner.”
This year, South Korea will contribute $924 million, an 8.2 percent rise from the previous year, to cover more than 50 percent of the costs of maintaining US forces there. Funds are mainly used to construct military facilities for US soldiers and pay for the salaries of South Korean civilians hired in US bases. The remainder is covered by the US government to pay for the salaries of American servicemen and women and costs for the deployment of weapons systems during training exercises.
At the order of Trump, White House national security adviser, John Bolton, is said to have asked Seoul to significantly ramp up its contribution to costs to $5 billion during his meeting with South Korean officials last month, according to diplomatic sources.
“There was no mention by Secretary Esper regarding the sharing of the defense costs,” a foreign ministry spokesman said on condition of anonymity after Esper met South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa earlier in the day.
“Esper and Kang discussed their shared interests in a free and open Indo-Pacific.”