By Phil Stewart and Joyce Lee
SEOUL (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper pressed South Korea on Friday to pay more for the cost of stationing U.S. troops in the country and to maintain an intelligence-sharing pact with its other Asian ally, Japan, that Seoul is about to let lapse.
Speaking after a high-level defence policy meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyeong-doo, Esper also said the two countries have to be flexible with their joint military drills to support diplomatic efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear programme.
But he stopped short of announcing any new reduction in exercises that North Korea has sharply condemned.
North Korea said on Thursday it had turned down a U.S. offer for new talks ahead of a year-end deadline Pyongyang has set for Washington to show more flexibility in negotiations.
As uncertainty hangs over the troubled peace push, the United States and South Korea are simultaneously scrambling to clinch an agreement in the coming weeks to cover next year’s costs of maintaining a 28,500-strong U.S. military presence aimed at deterring North Korea.
South Korea, Esper said, “is a wealthy country and could and should pay more” for the U.S. military deployment.
“It is crucial that we conclude the (defence pact) … with increased burden sharing by the Republic of Korea before the end of the year,” Esper told a news conference.
Jeong said he and Esper shared the view that the cost-sharing pact being negotiated should be fair and mutually agreeable, but it was unclear if they shared any sense of what a fair amount might be.
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.
NORTHKOREA: US SEEKING TO “PLUNDER” OTHERS
U.S. President Donald Trump has rattled South Korea with his insistence it take on a greater contribution for the deterrence against North Korea.
A survey by the government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification released last week showed 96% of South Koreans were against paying more for the U.S. military presence.
North Korea said in a commentary from state media KCNA on Friday that the U.S. demand for a greater South Korean contribution to defence costs was an “attempt to plunder others” and strengthen its military dominance in the region.
The South Korean foreign ministry announced another round of defence cost talks would be held on Nov. 18-19 in Seoul.
After his talks with Jeong, Esper warned that South Korea’s decision to end an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, called GSOMIA, would impact military readiness – presumably by slowing the ability of the U.S. allies to directly share information about North Korean military activity.
“The only ones who benefit from expiration of GSOMIA and continued friction between Seoul and Tokyo are Pyongyang and Beijing,” Esper said.
Jeong said both South Korea and Japan would make efforts to narrow differences before the pact expires on Nov. 23. But there was no sign of an imminent breakthrough.
Relations between the neighbours plunged after South Korea’s top court last year ordered Japanese firms to compensate some wartime forced labourers. Japan restricted exports of key industrial materials to South Korea in July.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart, Joyce Lee and Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel.)