US defense officials converge in Seoul to discuss troop costs, Japan pact

Published November 14, 2019, 4:22 PM

by Gabriela Baron & Minka Klaudia Tiangco

By Reuters

SEOUL – Top US military officer General Mark Milley met with his South Korean counterpart on Thursday to discuss military cooperation and the North Korea threat while seeking more money to pay for American troops stationed in the country.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley address reporters during a media briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., October 11, 2019. (REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo/MANILA BULLETIN)
US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley address reporters during a media briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, US, October 11, 2019. (REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo/MANILA BULLETIN)

Senior US defense and military officials are gathering in Seoul for talks as the two countries face intensifying threats from North Korea to stop joint military drills and for the US to change its approach in denuclearization talks.

Also high on the agenda is South Korea’s decision to scrap an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan known as GSOMIA, as relations between the two US allies sink to their lowest in decades.

Milley, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, was set to raise the troop cost sharing issue in his meeting with South Korean counterpart General Park Han-ki for the annual Military Committee Meeting (MCM) on Thursday.

“Chairman Milley is expected to focus on South Korea increasing its contribution for defense costs (of stationing US troops) and extending GSOMIA,” a South Korean military source said.

US President Donald Trump’s insistence Seoul take on a greater share of the cost of 28,500-strong American military presence as deterrence against North Korea has rattled South Korea. It could also set a precedent for upcoming US negotiations on defense cost-sharing with other allies.

A South Korean lawmaker said last week that US officials demanded up to $5 billion a year, more than five times what Seoul agreed to pay this year under a one-year deal.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper visits Seoul later on Thursday, ahead of a meeting with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo for the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) on Friday.

Esper said on Wednesday he was open to changes in US military activity on the Korean Peninsula if it helped enable diplomats, who are trying to jump-start stalled peace efforts with North Korea.

“South Korean and US military authorities maintain their support for diplomatic efforts for complete denuclearization and the establishment of permanent peace,” South Korean Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said.


Earlier, North Korea threatened to retaliate if the US goes ahead with scheduled military drills with South Korea, in a rare statement from the State Affairs Commission, which is chaired by leader Kim Jong Un.

Cheong Seong-Chang, Vice President of Research Planning at Sejong Institute, a foreign policy and security think tank, said the statement appeared to be aimed at justifying future North Korean military actions.

The meetings’ agenda includes US calls for Seoul to reconsider its decision to scrap the intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, called GSOMIA, Esper and Milley said. The pact, which South Korea decided not to renew, expires on November 23.

Esper said on Wednesday that GSOMIA “must be maintained” for cooperation between the United States, South Korea and Japan against any “North Korean bad behavior”, adding the dispute was only benefiting North Korea and China.

Defense Ministry spokeswoman Choi said South Korea “will be able to reexamine various measures, including GSOMIA, if Japan withdraws its unjust retaliatory measures and friendly relations between the two countries recover”.

Relations have plunged after South Korea’s top court last year ordered Japanese firms to compensate some wartime forced laborers, and Japan curbed exports of key industrial materials to South Korea in July.