July 22, 2020 11:13
Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on Tuesday failed to reach agreement on the downscaling of joint military drills scheduled for next month.
Korea wants the upcoming military drills to test Seoul's ability to take over full operational control of its troops in wartime. But the U.S. merely wants to sharpen the combat readiness of forces here.
The Defense Ministry in a statement after their telephone call said the two "discussed a wide range of defense-related issues, including the transfer of wartime operational control, command exercises and defense-cost sharing."
But there was no announcement of the timing and scale of the drills. The ministry said Jeong and Esper stressed their "unwavering" commitment to helping Korea take over full operational control of its troops. But the lack of detail strongly suggests that they reached no agreement on key issues.
The wrangling has been going on for months. On the surface, the key sticking point is the coronavirus epidemic, which makes it hard for U.S. forces to travel from the mainland. But beneath that surface are differences about the handover of troop control, which is scheduled for 2022.
The U.S. either harbors doubts about Korea's ability to command American troops stationed here in wartime or simply does not want to relinquish control.
The ministry said no discussions were held over any downsizing of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea and added that Jeong and Esper agreed to quickly wrap up cost-sharing talks, which have been dragging on for months. Korea seems increasingly determined to sit out the tenure of U.S. President Donald Trump, who is demanding an exorbitant hike in Seoul's share but his re-election chances in November are fading.
In a separate videoconference with the U.K.'s International Institute for Strategic Studies, Esper said no orders have been given to downsize U.S. troop presence in Korea. But he said the U.S. will continue to look at the need for any adjustment to "optimize its forces."
"I continue to want to pursue more rotational forces, force deployments into theaters, because it gives us, the United States, greater strategic flexibility in terms of responding to challenges around the globe," he said.
That suggests the possibility that troops not permanently stationed here could be deployed elsewhere.
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