U.S., South Korea defense chiefs leave out commitment to troop levels

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Oct. 15 (UPI) — A joint U.S.-South Korea statement issued following a meeting of military chiefs in Washington did not include references to maintaining current troop levels on the Korean Peninsula.

The 52nd Security Consultative Meeting between U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and his South Korean counterpart Suh Wook on Wednesday was also not followed by a press conference, South Korean news service Financial News reported Thursday.

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The U.S.-South Korea statement following the meeting left out any mention of maintaining the current level of U.S. troops. The phrase was included in last year’s statement.

“Given the current security environment, the secretary also reaffirmed the commitment to maintain the current level of the U.S. military personnel in [South Korea] and to enhance combat readiness,” the 2019 joint communiqué stated.

The omission comes as the two countries remain in dispute over military burden sharing for 28,500 U.S. troops on the peninsula. The Trump administration has demanded a five-fold increase, or $5 billion, in annual contributions from Seoul. In private conversations, the U.S. State Department may have said Seoul could foot as much as $15 billion annually, according to South Korean lawmaker Yoon Sang-hyun in 2019.

On Wednesday Esper and Suh discussed defense costs, transfer of wartime operational control or OPCON, and North Korea weapons development. Esper suggested at the meeting OPCON should not take place hastily, according to Yonhap.

“Fully meeting all the conditions for the transition of operational control to a [South Korean] commander will take time, but the process of doing so will strengthen our alliance,” Esper said.

On Wednesday South Korea’s presidential national security adviser Suh Hoon held a separate meeting at the White House with his counterpart Robert O’Brien. The White House National Security Council revealed the unannounced visit on Twitter late Thursday.

“Our ironclad alliance is stronger than ever,” O’Brien said.

Suh, who is expected to remain in Washington until Friday, may have discussed the signing of an end-of-war declaration with North Korea, as proposed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

North Korea has yet to respond to offers of talks.