S. Korea-US Military Committee Meeting kicks off in Seoul on Nov. 14

Posted on : 2019-11-15 17:03 KST Modified on : 2019-11-15 17:13 KST
SCM likely to be watershed on GSOMIA termination and USFK cost-sharing
South Korean Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Gen. Park Han-ki and US JCS Chairman Mark Milley review the honor guard at the JCS in Seoul on Nov. 14. (Yonhap News)
South Korean Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Gen. Park Han-ki and US JCS Chairman Mark Milley review the honor guard at the JCS in Seoul on Nov. 14. (Yonhap News)

A pair of annual security conferences between top defense officials from South Korea and the US kicked off on Nov. 14 amid Washington’s demands for Seoul to extend its General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Tokyo and to greatly increase its share of the cost of maintaining US troops in South Korea.

Since GSOMIA is supposed to terminate at midnight on Nov. 23 and the defense cost-sharing negotiations are scheduled to continue next week, these security meetings are likely to prove a watershed on these issues.

South Korean Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Gen. Park Han-ki and his US counterpart Gen. Mark Milley held the 44th Military Committee Meeting (MCM) in Seoul on Thursday, during which they reviewed the security situation on the Korean Peninsula and assessed the outcome of exercises held to test the South Korean military’s initial operational capability (IOC). Held in August, those exercises represented the first stage in transferring wartime operational control (OPCON) of the South Korean military to Seoul.

In a joint press release, South Korea and the US said that Milley had reconfirmed that the US would faithfully uphold its commitment to defend the Korean Peninsula, including extended deterrence. The US was also represented at the meeting by Adm. Philip Davidson, who leads the US Indo-Pacific Command, and Gen. Robert Abrams, heads US Forces Korea (USFK).

Milley apparently spoke about the need to extend GSOMIA during the meeting. Upon arriving at the Millennium Hilton Seoul afterward for an event called the ROK-US Alliance Night, he told a reporter that the issue had been discussed “a little.”

Milley mentions GSOMIA although it’s not an official agenda item

Considering that an official at South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said that the GSOMIA issue was not an official agenda item for the day’s meeting, Milley’s remark suggests that GSOMIA was brought up despite not even being on the agenda. Some analysts think that’s also why the meeting lasted 40 minutes longer than planned.

These US efforts also seem to have been incorporated into a joint statement by the two countries about the meeting. According to the statement, Park and Milley agreed on the importance of a multilateral partnership to contribute to regional security and peace and agreed to work on strengthening multilateral cooperation.

“’Multilateral partnership’ is a sweeping expression that means security cooperation between South Korea and Japan and also between South Korea, the US, and Japan,” a source in the South Korean military said. It’s unusual for a “multilateral partnership” to be brought up during the two countries’ Military Committee Meeting.

The US also ruled out the idea that American troops could be pulled out of Korea, which has been the subject of much speculation about the defense cost-sharing negotiations. “It is incumbent on us to make sure we adequately explain how the US military is a stabilizing force in Northeast Asia in preventing and deterring the outbreak of armed conflict,” the USFK posted on its Twitter account on Wednesday, quoting remarks that Milley made on Nov. 11.

The USFK appears to have been qualifying the beginning of Milley’s remarks (“The average American looking at the forward deployed US troops in South Korea and Japan ask some fundamental questions: Why are they needed there?”) which had led to the mistaken assumption that the US was using the threat of a US troop withdrawal to force South Korea to increase its cost-sharing contribution.

S. Korean, Japanese defense ministers to meet at ASEAN Plus meeting

The issues of a bigger cost-sharing contribution and GSOMIA are also expected to come up during the 51st Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) on Nov. 15, which will be attended by South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper. When asked on his flight to South Korea whether the US had actually asked South Korea to double its defense contribution, Esper declined to disclose the precise figure but did acknowledge that the US has “asked for a significant increase in the cost-sharing for our deployed troops.”

Esper also took a strong line on GSOMIA. “My message will be very clear. [. . .] And that is the GSOMI Agreement must be maintained. [. . .] The only folks who are benefiting from this dispute right now are North Korea and China.”

Following his meeting with Jeong, Esper will reportedly be paying a courtesy call at the Blue House to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, accompanied by Milley and Abrams.

With the scheduled termination of GSOMIA rapidly approaching, South Korea and Japan are also working to arrange a meeting between their defense ministers. The South Korean Defense Ministry reported that final adjustments are being made for a proposed meeting between Jeong and Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono on the sidelines of the 6th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, which will be held in Bangkok on Nov. 17-18.

If held, that meeting would represent the final dialogue between the two countries’ defense ministers before GSOMIA is supposed to terminate. Plans for Jeong and Kono to sit down with Esper in a trilateral meeting of defense ministers from South Korea, Japan, and the US have essentially been finalized, sources say.

By Yoo Kang-moon, senior staff writer, Lee Wan, staff reporter, and Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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