By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Oct. 13 (Yonhap) -- Defense Minister Suh Wook headed to the United States on Tuesday for his first face-to-face talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper expected to focus on North Korea and the transfer of wartime operational control.
Suh and Esper are scheduled to meet in Washington on Wednesday for annual defense ministers' talks between the two countries, known as the Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), just days after North Korea unveiled a massive new missile believed to be capable of striking any part of the U.S.
Suh flew on an aerial refueling tanker, rather than a commercial flight, due to the coronavirus pandemic. It is his first overseas trip since taking office last month. It will also be the first time for a South Korean defense chief to visit a foreign country since February.
Ahead of the planned trip, Suh held phone talks with Esper last week and reaffirmed their commitment to a strong alliance and a firm joint defense posture, according to the ministry.
North Korea is expected to be high on the agenda as the communist nation unveiled a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during a military parade held on Saturday in Pyongyang.
Also on the table will be how to finish up the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean troops from Washington to Seoul.
Though the envisioned transition is a conditions-based one, not time-based, they eye 2022 as a target date. But because of the pandemic, they were unable to fully carry out a Full Operational Capability (FOC) test required to check if Seoul is on course to meet conditions for the transition.
Another bilateral issue that has drawn attention is their defense cost-sharing deal on how much Seoul will pay for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea. Negotiations have been deadlocked for months, as the U.S. demands a significant increase in Seoul's contribution.
The U.S. could also raise its push to expand a four-nation grouping of Asia-Pacific countries, known as the Quad, in an apparent effort to keep a rising China in check. The current Quad members are the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.
Following the meeting, Suh and Esper are scheduled to hold a press conference, and the two sides are to issue a joint statement, according to Seoul's defense ministry.
The country's KC-330 air refueling tanker was mobilized for the trip, rather than a commercial plane, due to the pandemic, the defense ministry said, adding that Suh is to return home on Thursday.
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