By Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – A top U.S. military officer reaffirmed on Thursday that the United States is ready to use the “full range” of its capabilities to defend South Korea from any attack, a joint statement after a meeting with officials in Seoul said.
Senior U.S. defence officials are gathering in Seoul for annual meetings as the two countries face intensifying threats from North Korea to stop joint military drills and for the United States to change its approach in denuclearisation talks.
The United States is also seeking a greater financial contribution from South Korea for hosting American troops, while urging Seoul to revoke its decision to scrap an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan known as GSOMIA, which Washington fears would undermine trilateral cooperation.
General Mark Milley, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, met his South Korean counterpart General Park Han-ki for the annual Military Committee Meeting (MCM) on Thursday.
Both sides discussed ways to maintain solid defence posture and a planned transfer of wartime operational control to South Korea, the joint statement said, even as they have scaled back joint exercises to expedite negotiations with North Korea.
Milley reiterated the “continued commitment to providing extended deterrence”, the statement said.
“He affirmed that the United States remains prepared to respond to any attack on the Korean Peninsula, using the full range of U.S. military capabilities.”
U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper visits Seoul later on Thursday, ahead of a meeting with South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo for the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) on Friday.
Esper said on Wednesday he was open to changes in U.S. military activity in South Korea if it helped diplomats trying to jump-start stalled talks with North Korea.
Pyongyang has derided the U.S.-South Korea exercises as hostile, even in the current reduced form. On Wednesday, it threatened to retaliate if the allies go ahead with scheduled drills in a rare statement from the State Affairs Commission, a top governing body chaired by leader Kim Jong Un.
Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at South Korea’s Sejong Institute think-tank, said the North’s statement appeared to be aimed at justifying future North Korean military actions.
Milley has hinted at raising the troop cost sharing and Japan issues, though the joint statement did not address them directly.
“Chairman Milley is expected to focus on South Korea increasing its contribution for defence costs and extending GSOMIA,” a South Korean military source said.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s insistence Seoul take on a greater share of the cost of 28,500-strong American military presence as deterrence against North Korea has rattled South Korea. It could also set a precedent for upcoming U.S. negotiations on defence cost-sharing with other allies.
A South Korean lawmaker said last week that U.S. officials demanded up to $5 billion a year, more than five times what Seoul agreed to pay this year under a one-year deal.
Washington has also been pressing Seoul to reconsider its decision to scrap the GSOMIA intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. The pact, which South Korea decided not to renew, expires on Nov. 23.
Esper said on Wednesday that GSOMIA “must be maintained” for cooperation between the United States, South Korea and Japan against any “North Korean bad behaviour”, adding the dispute was only benefiting North Korea and China.
Seoul’s Defence Ministry spokeswoman Choi Hyun-soo said on Thursday it would reexamine GSOMIA “if Japan withdraws its unjust retaliatory measures and friendly relations between the two countries recover”.
Relations have plunged after South Korea’s top court last year ordered Japanese firms to compensate some wartime forced labourers, and Japan curbed exports of key industrial materials to South Korea in July.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Alex Richardson)