By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, March 17 (Yonhap) -- South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin were to hold their first face-to-face talks Wednesday, with North Korea and the wartime operational control transfer likely to be among key agenda items.
Austin is scheduled to arrive in South Korea from Japan later in the day for a three-day stay as part of his first Asia swing since taking office in January, which will later take him to India, according to officials at the defense ministry.
The upcoming one-on-one talks are expected to focus on how to maintain a strong joint readiness posture against North Korea's evolving nuclear and missile threats, officials said.
The communist country has been developing defense capabilities by advancing diverse types of ballistic missiles, and there have been signs that it continues to have operated some of its nuclear facilities.
In a joint contribution to The Washington Post on Monday, Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said they, along with South Korea and Japan, will "strategize together on how to confront shared threats such as North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs."
Also on the table would be the envisioned transfer of the wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean troops from Washington to Seoul.
It is conditions-based, not time-based, but South Korea hopes to expedite the transition to achieve the goal within the term of the current administration that ends in May 2022.
But the process has been somewhat delayed, as the two sides were not able to carry out their planned Full Operational Capability (FOC) test. It was supposed to take place during their combined exercise last year but has not been fully conducted due to the COVID-19 situation and Washington's focus more on their combat posture during the exercises.
"The U.S. well understands our stance, and we are also pushing for the issue in close consultation with the U.S.," a ministry official said.
Austin is also expected to call for better defense ties between South Korea and Japan in a move to shore up the trilateral cooperation.
Relations between Seoul and Tokyo have fallen to one of the lowest ebbs in recent years, as historical and diplomatic spats have spilled over into the security realms.
In 2019, the Seoul government decided not to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a bilateral military information-sharing pact with Japan, in protest of its export curbs, though it suspended the decision at the last minute amid U.S. pressure against its termination.
Some also say the U.S. could mention Seoul's possible participation in the Quad forum, which is largely viewed as a coalition against China.
But Minister Suh told lawmakers Tuesday that he does not think such a suggestion is likely to be made this time, as the U.S. side "has not sent any such signals."
Following the defense talks, Seoul and Washington plan to issue a joint statement, according to the ministry.
On Thursday, Suh and Austin will join Blinken and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong for a "two plus two" meeting, which also serves as a venue to coordinate their policy measures toward North Korea and to discuss ways to further boost the alliance.
After paying a courtesy call on President Moon Jae-in, Suh and Austin plan to visit a state cemetery in Seoul to pay tribute to fallen heroes, according to the officials.
On Friday, Austin plans to meet with American service members stationed in South Korea before leaving for India, they added.
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