The defense chiefs of South Korea and the U.S. on Wednesday clashed over key issues like sharing the cost of maintaining 28,500 American troops in Korea.
Their joint statement at the end of their talks did not include the phrase “maintain the current level of the U.S. military personnel” in Korea, and a scheduled joint press conference of Defense Minister Suh Wook and U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was canceled at the last minute.
Discord is also becoming more evident on issues like U.S. pressure on Korea to join the anti-Chinese Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “Quad” which includes Australia, India and Japan.
Esper said, “I hope we will all agree on the necessity of reaching [a cost-sharing deal] as soon as possible to ensure the stable stationing of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula.”
U.S. President Donald Trump is demanding a massive hike in Seoul’s share of the troops’ upkeep, and Washington upped the pressure by demanding for the first time in 12 years the omission of the phrase “maintain the current level of the U.S. military personnel” in Korea.
But Seoul now seems determined to sit out Trump, whose chances of re-election next month are fading, and unwilling to present him with a diplomatic victory that could help him stay president. This in turn has peeved Washington, which is now reluctant to help President Moon Jae-in meet one of his election promises before his five-year term is up.
Regarding the handover of full operational control of Korean troops to Seoul before Moon’s term ends in 2022, Esper said, “Fully meeting all the conditions for the transition of operational control to a [Korean] commander will take time, but the process of doing so will strengthen our alliance.”
Meanwhile, Cheong Wa Dae’s national security adviser Suh Hoon met his U.S. counterpart Robert O’Brien in Washington and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. A Cheong Wa Dae official said Suh’s visit comes at the invitation of the U.S. and the purpose is to “discuss key alliance issues.”
It is unclear why there would be any urgency since Trump is concentrating all his efforts of his re-election campaign. The real purpose of his sudden visit was apparently to try and hammer out the sticking points between the two defense chiefs.
Cheong Wa Dae kept Suh Hoon’s visit under wraps until Washington announced it.
One former vice foreign minister here said, “The current administration tends to wrap itself in too much secrecy when it comes to visits by government officials because the bilateral alliance is not what it used to be, but this only gives the impression that it lacks diplomatic confidence.”