S. Korean defense minister, US defense secretary reaffirm robust state of alliance in teleconference

Posted on : 2020-07-22 17:10 KST Modified on : 2020-07-22 17:41 KST
Jeong Kyeong-doo, Esper say USFK troop reduction was not discussed
South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo (right) and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper ahead of their meeting at the South Korean Ministry of National Defense in Seoul on Aug. 9, 2019. (photo pool)
South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo (right) and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper ahead of their meeting at the South Korean Ministry of National Defense in Seoul on Aug. 9, 2019. (photo pool)

The South Korean defense minister and the US defense secretary reaffirmed the robust state of the two sides’ alliance and the close cooperation between their defense authorities in a teleconference on July 21, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense (MND) reported that day.

According to the MND, the two ministers “discussed various issues related to national defense, including the condition-based transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON), joint command post exercises, and negotiations on defense cost sharing.” But the matter of possible withdrawals or reductions of US Forces Korea (USFK) troops -- a topic that has recently drawn attention in the foreign press -- was “not discussed at all” in the meeting that day, said Moon Hong-sik, acting MND spokesman. His remarks reaffirmed that the foreign press’s speculation about USFK withdrawals or reductions was not a real enough issue to be included in the agenda for the two defense ministers’ conversation.

On July 17, the Wall Street Journal quoted a US military official as saying the US Joint Chiefs of Staff had examined USFK as part of a broad-ranging reassessment of how to readjust and potentially reduce the stationing of US troops around the world. The MND previously stated that it had “not been notified of anything by or agreed on anything with the US.”

Possibility of joint military exercises with only USFK and S. Korean military

The two ministers were also reported to have agreed on a plan for the two sides to continue observing the COVID-19 pandemic as they discuss the scale and content of joint exercises scheduled for late August. With the exercises set to take place in a month, the possibility of their taking place with only USFK and the South Korean military -- without the involvement of reinforcements from the continental US -- has reportedly been raised. If this happens, the joint South Korea-US exercises are very likely to take place at a much smaller scale than in past years. A South Korean military official said, “US reserves are also included in the troops participating from the continental US, and it’s up in the air how many of them will be able to take part in the exercises.”

Once the number of participating US troops is determined, the MND plans to determine the content of the exercises accordingly. The two sides have reportedly been differing in their opinions on the exercises’ content: South Korea believes they should be geared toward testing the future joint command’s full operational capability (FOC) for the purpose of the OPCON transfer, while the US military maintains that the focus should be on reviewing the combined defense posture.

S. Korea, US not at odds but “coordinating respective positions,” MND says

“Rather than saying South Korea and the US are at odds, I think it’s more appropriate to say they are currently coordinating their respective positions,” an MND official said.

Politicians have recently been arguing that the South Korea-US joint exercises should be postponed in consideration of inter-Korean relations and other factors. Unification minister nominee Lee In-young said on July 21 that he would like the South Korea-US joint military exercises to be postponed, prefacing his remarks by explaining that they were his “personal opinion.”

But the MND is insisting that the scheduled joint exercises need to go ahead normally if the OPCON transfer is to take place within President Moon Jae-in’s term as stated in his election pledge. In their joint exercises last year, South Korea and the US tested the future joint command’s initial operational capability (IOC). The argument is that the OPCON transfer can only be pursued before Moon’s term ends in May 2022 if the full operational capability (FOC) is tested this time, followed by the full mission capability (FMC) next year. This means the schedule for the OPCON transfer is very likely to experience setbacks if the exercises this August are skipped.

By Park Byong-su, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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