JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday he was open to the possibility of modifying U.S. military activities in South Korea if it would help advance a diplomatic deal with Korea. North to eliminate its nuclear program.
In an interview with reporters traveling with him in Seoul, Esper said any changes in military exercises or training would be done in a way that did not compromise the combat readiness of troops. And he said they would be done in consultation with the South Korean government.
He wouldn’t say what specific tweaks might be considered. The United States and South Korea have already scaled back their 2018 and 2019 military drills in hopes it would help move North Korea toward a deal to give up its nuclear weapons. So far it hasn’t worked.
“We will adjust our exercise posture, more or less, depending on what diplomacy may require,” Esper said, adding, “We have to be open to all those things that empower and enable our diplomats” in the talks. nuclear.
North Korea has long opposed large-scale US and South Korean military exercises, which it calls preparations for an invasion of the North. President Donald Trump has also criticized the drills as too expensive and provocative, but US military commanders see them as essential to deterring North Korea and ensuring any invasion by the North would fail.
“As we consider adjusting – either up or down – drills, training, stuff like that, we want to do this in close collaboration with our (South) Korean partners, not as a concession to Korea. of the North but, again, as a means to keep the door open for diplomacy, ”he said.
Esper said he takes seriously North Korea’s statement that the end of this year is a deadline for the United States to change its approach to nuclear negotiations.
He said he hoped diplomacy would prevail, given the history of tensions on the Korean peninsula since the North Koreans began launching intercontinental-range ballistic missiles that could eventually be weaponized. nuclear.
Esper recalled his concern about the prospects for war on the peninsula when he became army secretary in 2017.
“We were on the way to war,” he said. “It was very clear to me because the army was making preparations.” He did not specify.
The United States has about 28,000 troops in South Korea, and Esper said they must be ready to fight the North at all times.
Esper also said that during talks in Seoul this week with his South Korean counterpart, he would express US concern over Seoul’s stated plan to pull out of an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. Esper said the dispute between Tokyo and Seoul only helps North Korea and China.