US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper says crucial that South Korea pay more for US troops

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper and South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo speak at a news conference in Seoul, South Korea, on Nov 15, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper pressed South Korea on Friday (Nov 15) to pay more for the cost of stationing US 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, Mr Jeong Kyeong-doo, Mr Esper also said the two countries have to be flexible in modifying their joint military drills to support ongoing diplomatic efforts to end North Korea's nuclear programme.

But he stopped short of announcing any changes to exercises next month that North Korea has sharply condemned.

North Korea said on Thursday it had turned down a US offer for fresh talks ahead of a year-end deadline Pyongyang has set for Washington to show more flexibility in negotiations.

The United States and South Korea are scrambling to clinch an agreement in the coming weeks to cover next year's costs of maintaining the 28,500-strong US military presence aimed at deterring North Korea.

South Korea, Mr Esper said, "is a wealthy country and could and should pay more" for the deployment of US military in the South.

"It is crucial that we conclude the (defence pact) ... with increased burden sharing by the Republic of Korea before the end of the year," he told a news conference.

Mr Jeong said he and Mr Esper shared the view that the cost-sharing pact now 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 US officials demanded up to US$5 billion (S$6.8 billion) a year, more than five times what Seoul agreed to pay this year under a one-year deal.

US President Donald Trump's insistence that Seoul take on a greater contribution as deterrence against North Korea has rattled South Korea. It could also set a precedent for upcoming US negotiations on defence cost-sharing with other allies.

Mr Jeong said he and Mr Esper discussed personal views on South Korea's decision to end an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, called GSOMIA, and that both governments will put in realistic effort to narrow differences before the pact expires on Nov 23.

Relations between the two neighbours 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.

Mr Jeong said both sides also reaffirmed the US commitment for the defence of South Korea against North Korea and the ongoing efforts to denuclearise the North.


Separately, Mr Esper on Friday rejected any suggestion of bias in a Pentagon decision to award Microsoft an up to US$10 billion cloud computing contract, after announced plans to challenge it.

"I am confident it was conducted freely and fairly, without any type of outside influence," he told reporters.

Amazon says that politics got in the way of a fair contracting process. In a companywide meeting on Thursday, Amazon Web Services' chief executive, Mr Andy Jassy, said it would be challenging for a US agency to award a contract objectively when the US President is disparaging one of the contestants, according to an Amazon spokesman.

President Trump has long criticised Amazon and its founder, Mr Jeff Bezos. He had said in August that Amazon's bid for the Joint Enterprise Defence Infrastructure Cloud, known as Jedi, contract was under review by his administration after complaints from other companies.

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