The US defense secretary’s trip comes as both countries face crucial security issues, including North Korea’s recent missile launches in protest against a South Korea-US military exercise and the building of a global coalition to patrol the Gulf shipping lane. The two countries are also expected to start negotiations on their cost-sharing deal for US troops stationed in Korea.
|Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo speaks during a session of the National Defense Committee at the National Assembly on Monday. (Yonhap)|
Starting Friday, Esper has been on his first international trip since assuming office July 23. The trip is taking him to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mongolia and South Korea.
Seoul is widely expected to send the Cheonghae unit, which has operated in waters off Somalia since 2009 to tackle piracy, to the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. It is an importance oil passageway for Seoul, with more than 70 percent of its oil imports shipped through the strait.
Washington has not formally requested Seoul to dispatch troops to the Strait of Hormuz, but South Korea could voluntarily make a decision to send troops, as South Korea-flagged ships could face danger in the area, Defense Minister Jeong said during a session of the National Defense Committee at the National Assembly on Monday.
He said dispatching the Cheonghae unit would not require approval from the National Assembly as its purpose would be to protect Korean citizens in case of emergency. He added that the scale of the Cheonghae unit, which includes a destroyer, a helicopter and three speed boats with 302 personnel, is not subjected to parliamentary approval.
Tensions between Iran and the US have increased since Washington pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal last year and imposed sanctions on Tehran. In the wake of Washington withdrawing from the deal, Iran has vowed to resume uranium enrichment and continue trading oil.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who accompanied Esper on the Sydney leg of the tour, said Sunday that the US had received positive responses from over 30 countries for its plan to forge a military coalition to secure the waters, downplaying news reports that Japan and European allies have been loath to join for fear of provoking open conflict.
Stressing that a global coalition would “reduce the risk of conflict in the region and enable the freedom of navigation,” Pompeo said South Korea and Japan are countries that should join the force.
“It’s very important that every country that has an interest in that region and has goods and services that flow, energy that flows into places like Japan and Korea, that they participate in a way that protects the interests of their own economies,” he said at the South Wales Parliament House.
If South Korea joins the force, the alliance of the two countries would be expanded beyond the Northeast Asian region, with Seoul making a contribution to the international community, said Park Won-gon, a professor at Handong Global University.
Another topic that Esper and Jeong could discuss is the cost-sharing deal, known as the Special Measures Agreement, before the current one-year accord expires at the end of the year.
For 2019, Seoul has paid about 1.03 trillion won ($847.3 million) for costs related to the stationing of 28,500 members of the US Armed Forces in Korea. The 2019 agreement is valid only for this year per Washington’s request for annual renewal of the agreement. Previous deals were struck for five-year terms.
If South Korea refuses to participate in the Hormuz mission, there is a possibility that the US could link the cost-sharing deal with it, Park said.
“The US can charge South Korea for the cost of securing Hormuz in the future defense cost-sharing negotiations,” he said.
By Park Han-na (firstname.lastname@example.org)