(ATTN: RECASTS headline; UPDATES throughout with quotes, details)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Aug. 9 (Yonhap) -- The United States is willing to engage diplomatically with North Korea to make progress in efforts to denuclearize the communist nation but will continue sanctions on Pyongyang until the regime gives up its nuclear program, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday.
Esper made the remark at the start of talks with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo in Seoul, stressing the importance of close and continued coordination between the two allies on the issue of North Korea.
The U.S. "will remain resolute in the enforcement of the U.N. Security Council resolutions until the North engages in the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula," Esper said.
"As President Trump has made clear, the U.S. is willing to engage diplomatically with North Korea to make progress on all commitments made in the Singapore joint statement to achieve those ends," he said.
Esper also said the two allies are ready "to defend ourselves and also creating space for diplomacy."
Calling the Indo-Pacific region the U.S.' priority theater, Esper noted that his visit to South Korea is to reaffirm the "ironclad" alliance, which is "the linchpin of peace and security" on the Korean Peninsula and the Northeast Asia.
Welcoming the Pentagon chief, Minister Chung said their meeting carries a particular significance "at this very urgent moment in terms of the security situation on and surrounding the peninsula," citing North Korea's ballistic missile launches, Japan's export restrictions on Seoul and a Russian warplane's violation of Korean airspace last month.
"I hope that the South Korean and the U.S. defense authorities continue to cooperate closely to overcome such difficulties while maintaining the strong combined defense posture," Chung said.
Esper arrived in South Korea on Thursday for a two-day visit on the final leg of his five-nation trip to the Asia-Pacific region, which also took him to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Mongolia.
During Friday's talks, the two sides were expected to share their assessment of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and discuss major pending issues, including how to boost cooperation for the denuclearization of North Korea and the envisioned transfer of the wartime operational control (OPCON) from Washington to Seoul, according to South Korea's defense ministry.
North Korea has intensified its display of weapons in recent weeks by test-firing newly developed short-range ballistic missiles several times, saying the launches were to send warnings against the combined military exercise between South Korea and the U.S.
The allies practically kicked off their summertime exercise Monday that is meant to test South Korea's capabilities for the OPCON transfer, and they are widely expected to announce details, including its name and duration, following Friday's defense talks.
His trip also came at a time when the U.S. has pressured South Korea to increase its financial contribution to the cost of stationing American troops here.
Ahead of the meeting with Jeong, Esper met with Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha.
Though there had been speculation that Esper may raise the issue of the defense cost for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea, a foreign ministry official told reporters that he did not mention the issue during the meeting.
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that South Korea is "a very wealthy nation that now feels an obligation to contribute to the military defense" provided by the U.S.
Under this year's agreement, Seoul agreed to pay 1.04 trillion won (US$915 million), a 8.2 percent increase on-year. With the deal set to expire at the end of the year, the two sides are expected to begin negotiations soon.
Esper is also expected to stress the importance of the extension of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between Seoul and Tokyo as a key trilateral security mechanism, amid the possibility of its abrogation amid growing enmity between the two neighbors over Japan's export curbs.
Also drawing attention is whether Esper will officially ask for South Korea's participation in the U.S.-led coalition to safeguard the Strait of Hormuz off Iran. Esper also could also ask to deploy intermediate-range missiles in South Korea after the U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia.
Following his meeting with Jeong, Esper will likely meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chung Eui-yong, the national security adviser, before leaving South Korea, according to officials.
Esper, who served as the secretary of the Army, was sworn in as the 27th secretary of defense last month after seven months of turmoil surrounding the top job at the Pentagon since James Mattis resigned from the post in December.
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