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(3rd LD) Pentagon chief calls for renewal of Seoul-Tokyo intel-sharing pact

All Headlines 15:17 November 15, 2019

(ATTN: ADDS more details throughout, photo)
By Oh Seok-min and Yi Wonju

SEOUL, Nov. 15 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper urged South Korea and Japan on Friday to work together to renew their expiring military information-sharing pact, saying its termination will only benefit North Korea and China.

Esper made the call during a joint press conference with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo after holding their annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) in Seoul.

The pact, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), is to expire on Nov. 23, following South Korea's decision in August to end it in response to Japan's export curbs on Seoul citing security concerns.

"GSOMIA is an important tool by which South Korea, the U.S. and Japan share effective information, particularly in times of war. Expiration of GSOMIA will have impact on our effectiveness, so we urge all sides to sit down and work through their differences," Esper said.

"The only ones who will benefit from expiration of GSOMIA and continued friction between Seoul and Tokyo are Pyongyang and Beijing," the Pentagon chief said. "That reason alone should be powerful enough for us to sit down and make sure we restore our alliance to where it was so we can work together to respond to our common threats and challenges."

The United States has pressed Seoul to reconsider the termination decision, as it sees the three-year-old pact as a key trilateral security mechanism to counter threats posed by North Korea and to better deal with an assertive China.

Seoul has said any reconsideration would be possible only if Japan first changes its course, as Japan's measure is seen as political retaliation for last year's Korean Supreme Court rulings against Japanese firms over wartime forced labor.

South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo (R, standing) poses for a photo with U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper as they hold the 51st Security Consultative Meeting at the defense ministry in Seoul on Nov. 15, 2019. (Yonhap)

Speaking of defense cost-sharing negotiations, Esper called on South Korea to increase its payment.

"South Korea is a wealthy country and could and should pay more to help offset the cost of defense," Esper said, adding, "It is crucial that we conclude the SMA with increased burden sharing by the Republic of Korea before the end of the year."

While noting that South Korea has provided "a fair amount of support" in the past, the secretary said it is "important to know that ... easily over 90 percent of that funding stays here in Korea."

Esper, however, did not mention exact numbers.

Negotiations are under way between the allies to renew the SMA, which stipulates how to share the cost for upkeep of the 28,500-strong U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.

Washington has reportedly demanded Seoul pay nearly US$5 billion annually. Under the current deal, set to expire at year's end, South Korea agreed to pay $870 million a year.

Asked about whether the allies plan to go ahead with upcoming joint exercises in the face of angry complaints from North Korea, Esper said such drills aim not only to deter and defeat adversaries but to foster diplomacy.

"The purpose of our forces and exercises is not only to buttress our diplomacy, but to also enable and empower it," he said, adding that the two sides "remain flexible in terms of how we support our diplomats to ensure that we do not close any doors that may allow for the progress on the diplomatic front."

But he did not elaborate on what the allies will specifically do about the upcoming air exercises.

Though officials say the planned drills will be smaller in scale compared to their massive Vigilant Ace exercise, which was conducted until 2017 before being suspended last year, North Korea lodged strong complaints against the plan and warned of retribution.

On the way to Seoul, Esper made a similar remark that Seoul and Washington will adjust their exercise posture. In response, North Korea on Thursday expressed appreciation for U.S. efforts to keep their denuclearization dialogue going.

But it also warned of "shocking punishment" that the U.S. cannot endure should drills go ahead as planned.

North Korea has long denounced Seoul and Washington's military drills as a rehearsal for an invasion into the North, though the allies say that they are defensive in nature.

South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo (4th from R) and U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (3rd from L) hold talks at the defense ministry in Seoul on Aug. 9, 2019. (Yonhap)

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