The defense chiefs of South Korea and the United States were set to meet in Seoul on Friday to discuss regional security and other alliance issues, the defense ministry said, amid North Korea's saber-rattling against their joint exercise and frayed ties between Seoul and Tokyo.
The talks between South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also come at a time the U.S. has pressured South Korea to increase its financial contribution to the cost of stationing American troops here.
Esper arrived in South Korea on Thursday for a two-day visit on the final leg of his five-nation trip to the Asia-Pacific region, which also took him to Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Mongolia.
During Friday's talks, the two sides plan to share their assessment of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and discuss major pending issues, including how to boost cooperation for the denuclearization of North Korea and the envisioned transfer of the wartime operational control (OPCON) from Washington to Seoul, according to South Korea's defense ministry.
North Korea has intensified its dispaly of weapons in recent weeks by test-firing newly developed short-range ballistic missiles several times, saying the launches were to send warnings against the combined military exercise between South Korea and the U.S.
The allies practically kicked off their summertime exercise Monday that is meant to test South Korea's capabilities for the OPCON transfer, and they are widely expected to announce details, including its name and duration, following Friday's defense talks.
Ahead of the meeting with Jeong, Esper was known to have a plan to meet Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, during which he might raise the issue of the defense cost for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea.
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that South Korea is "a very wealthy nation that now feels an obligation to contribute to the military defense" provided by the U.S.
Under this year's agreement, Seoul agreed to pay 1.04 trillion won (US$915 million), a 8.2 percent increase on-year. With the deal set to expire at the end of the year, the two sides are expected to begin negotiations soon.
Esper is also expected to stress the importance of the extension of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between Seoul and Tokyo as a key trilateral security mechanism, amid the possibility of its abrogation amid growing enmity between the two neighbors over Japan's export curbs.
Also drawing attention is whether Esper will officially ask for South Korea's participation in the U.S.-led coalition to safeguard the Strait of Hormuz off Iran. Esper also could also ask to deploy intermediate-range missiles in South Korea after the U.S. withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia.
Following his meeting with Jeong, Esper will likely meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chung Eui-yong, the national security adviser, before leaving South Korea, according to officials.
Esper, who served as the secretary of the Army, was sworn in as the 27th secretary of defense last month after seven months of turmoil surrounding the top job at the Pentagon since James Mattis resigned from the post in December. (Yonhap)