US Secretaries of State, Defense to visit S. Korea Wednesday

Posted on : 2021-03-12 17:04 KST Modified on : 2021-03-12 17:04 KST
The US is unlikely to stress its efforts to contain China in the upcoming first high-level meeting
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Capitol Hill, on Wednesday, in Washington. (AFP/Yonhap News)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Capitol Hill, on Wednesday, in Washington. (AFP/Yonhap News)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to South Korea has been scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, leading to speculation about what will be discussed during the first high-level meeting between the administrations of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Joe Biden. The two governments are expected to settle disagreements that arose during the presidency of Donald Trump and affirm the restoration of the alliance while also discussing future affairs on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean government officials said Thursday that Minister of Foreign Affairs Chung Eui-yong will hold his first meeting with Blinken on the afternoon of Wednesday. The next day, the two will join Austin and South Korean Minister of National Defense Suh Wook for the first “2 + 2” meeting of the countries’ top diplomats and defense officials in five years.

South Korea and the US are currently arranging a time for Blinken and Austin to pay a courtesy call on President Moon and meet with Suh Hoon, director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. On their visit to South Korea, Blinken and Austin are also likely to initial the two countries’ updated defense cost-sharing agreement, known as the 11th Special Measures Agreement.

The alliance relationship is expected to be one of the major items on the agenda of Chung and Blinken’s meeting. Officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) say that South Korea will send a message that the two countries are “on the same page” about the alliance, while the US will send the message that “America is back” and ready to restore its alliances.

On a more technical level, the two officials are expected to trade their opinions about the Biden administration’s review of North Korea policy, which has reportedly entered its final stages. The South Koreans are expected to emphasize the need for the Biden administration to quickly engage with the North.

Other items likely to be discussed are bilateral cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and stronger trilateral cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan, both initiatives stressed by the Biden administration.

But since the Biden administration will soon be holding its first high-level talks with China, the US is unlikely to stress its efforts to contain China, South Korean government officials believe.

In addition, Chung and Blinken’s discussion will probably cover a wide range of topics, including responding to climate change, the coup d’état in Myanmar, and the Iran nuclear deal, as well as two related issues: Iranian funds frozen in South Korea and a South Korean ship and captain the Iranians seized.

In the meeting between South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the main agenda items are likely to be returning wartime operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean military to Seoul, repairing security cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan, and improving training conditions for US Forces Korea (USFK).

South Korea and the US had originally agreed to complete the assessment of full operational capability (FOC) of the future Combined Forces Command last year. But that assessment is unlikely to take place this year either, partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic and partly because of tepidness from the US. That has led to continuing delays in the timeframe for the OPCON transfer.

South Korea is likely to ask the US for its proactive cooperation in speeding up the OPCON transfer.

The Americans are expected to ask South Korea to boost trilateral security cooperation with the US and Japan, as suggested by US Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Helvey in a hearing before the US House Committee on Armed Services Wednesday.

Helvey told the committee that recent tensions between South Korea and Japan had created numerous difficulties by damaging trilateral cooperation on defense. He added that such discord only benefits enemy states and said that maintaining trilateral cooperation with South Korea and Japan was a priority for the US.

Improving USFK training conditions is an issue on which the US military has recently placed considerable emphasis.

By Kim Ji-eun, staff reporter

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