In regard with the recent threats from Pyongyang, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the North won’t be compensated for bad behaviors, adding that the U.S. is closely watching the exceptional and alarming developments from North Korea. Secretary Esper urged the communist regime to grab “the chance of lifetime,” saying the U.S. is working along its ally South Korea to achieve the “Final Fully Verifiable Denuclearization (FFVD)” of North Korea.
In an exclusive email interview with The Dong-A Ilbo that marks the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, Secretary Esper said the existing threats (from the North) require a constant security readiness. This is the first time that a Korean media outlet has done an exclusive interview with the secretary of defense under the Trump administration.
Mr. Esper said he won’t guess the hidden intentions behind the rhetoric and measures from Pyongyang, stressing that the U.S. is committed to diplomatic efforts and it is Pyongyang that has to hold onto this chance of lifetime.
As to the Indo-Pacific strategy currently pushed for by the Pentagon, Secretary Esper said China remains to be the top security priority for the U.S. Department of Defense in the Indo-Pacific region. China's continued pursuit of an alternative vision for the Indo-Pacific region, a vision that abandons international rules and norms, makes clear that we are in a new era of great power competition and that the United States must be prepared for it.
Instead of opposing THAAD, China should redirect its ire to the source of instability, which is North Korea. He added that Washington and Seoul will continue to coordinate in all aspects in the matter of deployment of THAAD systems on the Korean Peninsula.
“The president has been consistent and clear about his expectation for wealthy allies to contribute more fair shares,” Secretary Esper said on the negotiations on the cost-sharing for the U.S. forces in Korea (USFK).
“Seven decades later, the U.S.-ROK Alliance remains the linchpin for security, stability, and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in the region. Our commitment to the defense of the ROK remains ironclad.”
▼ “ROK-U.S. alliance ironclad” ▼
During an exclusive interview with The Dong-A Ilbo on Wednesday (local time), the day before the 70th anniversary of the Korean War, Secretary Esper reflected on the meaning of the Korean War, which was the starting point of the ROK-U.S. alliance “forged in the blood,” and emphasized the U.S.’ determination to keep the alliance strong. He also repeatedly mentioned that both South Korea and the U.S. are maintaining a watertight readiness posture, seemingly in consideration of North Korea’s continuous provocations that have recently raised the level of tension on the Korean Peninsula.
The future of the United States is inextricably linked to that of the Indo-Pacific region, and it remains the Department's priority theater” While he put emphasis on continuous cooperation with South Korea, he did not forget to put pressure to increase the country’s defense cost share. He also shared his thoughts on current issues, including the transfer of wartime operational control, COVID-19, and cooperation among South Korea, the U.S., and Japan. The interview was conducted via email due to COVID-19 and the secretary’s schedule.
―This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. What does the Korean War mean to the U.S.?
“It is important to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Korean War. On behalf of the Department of Defense, I would like to express my gratitude to all Korean War veterans and their families-including the United States, the Republic of Korea (ROK), and 16 U.N. combatant countries-for their bravery and sacrifices. Although the recovered remains are for 120 ROK and 6 U.S. soldiers, these service members represent the hundreds of thousands who made the ultimate sacrifice, and whose sacrifice laid the foundation for our Alliance and enabled the security, prosperity, and freedom that we enjoy today.”
―Do you have any message you would like to share with the veterans who fought and shed blood together in the Korean War and their families?
“As a veteran, I understand the sacrifices our service members and their families have made for this country and our partners and allies. Our commitment to the defense of the ROK remains ironclad. As we commemorate this anniversary, we recognize not only the hard won battles of the Korean War, but the shared sacrifices that have defined our Alliance over the last 70 years.”
―How would you further develop the ROK-U.S. alliance forged in the blood to address many challenges in the Indo-Pacific region?
“Since the publication of the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report by the Department of Defense, we have made great strides on the three pillars of our strategy: preparedness, partnerships, and promoting a networked region. In the case of South Korea, strengthening the alliance includes our efforts to achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization (FFVD) of North Korea and an enduring peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
―North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently mentioned the strengthening of nuclear war deterrence. What is the U.S.’ strategy in response to increasing threats from the North?
“I would not speculate on the message behind North Korea's current rhetoric and actions. we will allow Chairman Kim to speak for himself. We are closely tracking North Korea's actions, including those recent activities at the Inter-Korea Joint Liaison Office. I will note that the United States remains committed to a diplomatic effort. It is for North Korea to seize upon this once-in-a-generation opportunity. We said from the beginning that we would not reward North Korea for bad behavior.”
―Are you considering the resumption of joint military drills between the United States and South Korea or the deployment of strategic assets in the case of North Korea’s further military provocations?
“We have also been starkly reminded in recent days that North Korea continues to present an extraordinary threat to the region. This persistent threat demands our continued vigilance. The President's strategy for North Korea continues to draw upon all aspects of national power to achieve the complete denuclearization of North Korea.”
―What do you think will be the biggest threats and challenges in the Indo-Pacific region and how should we address them?
“The future of the United States is inextricably linked to that of the Indo-Pacific region. China remains the Department's number one security priority in the region. China continues to leverage military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economic practices to reshape the regional balance of power in its favor. Its continued pursuit of an alternative vision that abandons international rules and norms, makes clear that we are in a new era of great power competition and that the United States must be prepared for it. However, the National Defense Strategy (NDS) also makes clear that competition with China does not mean confrontation, nor must it lead to conflict. Rather, it is about building national defense relations with China that are constructive, stable, and results-oriented.”
―The “United States Strategic Approach to The People’s Republic of China” report published by the White House emphasizes the importance of cooperation with allies and partners that share the same values with the U.S. What is it exactly that the U.S. wants from South Korea?
“The U.S. and South Korea are jointly making efforts to reinforce defense capabilities, build the interoperability between the U.S. and South Korean troops, support the combined defense readiness of the ROK-U.S. alliance, and strengthen partnerships with other countries and organizations to support the free and open international order.”
―While the U.S. is asking South Korea to contribute 1.3 billion dollars for defense costs, South Korea is insisting on a gradual increase. The gap between the two countries remains wide.
“President Donald Trump has been consistent and clear about his expectation for wealthy allies to contribute more fair shares. The ROK contributions to the Alliance over the last few decades are commendable, including support provided through previous SMAs. However, given the ROK's increasing status as a global economic powerhouse, the ROK must shoulder a larger, more equitable share of the burden.”
―Is the U.S. internally examining the option to reduce the USFK in the case that the two countries fail to reach an agreement until the end of this year?
“The Department of Defense routinely and continually evaluates our global force posture to ensure we have the right capabilities, at the right place, at the right time. We carefully consider threats to the homeland and our Alliance obligations. Such an examination helps us to respond appropriately to current, or emerging, threats around the world. Right now, the U.S. capabilities remain global and ready.”
―China publicly warned the U.S. not to interrupt the relationship between South Korea and China after the U.S. replaced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) equipment deployed to the Seongju base in North Gyeongsang Province.
“The ROK and the United States made an alliance decision to deploy THAAD to the Republic of Korea. North Korea openly states that its ballistic missiles are intended to deliver nuclear weapons to strike the Republic of Korea. THAAD provides a critical defensive capability that protects South Korean citizens and deployed U.S. forces against growing North Korean threats. The ROK and the United States will continue to coordinate on all aspects of the deployment of the THAAD system to South Korea. Instead of opposing THAAD, China should redirect its ire to the source of instability, which is North Korea.”
―South Korea and the U.S. are proceeding with the procedures for the transfer of wartime operational control(OPCON). Some are saying that it is getting delayed than the original schedule.
“OPCON transition remains conditions-based, so it is difficult for me to put a timeline on it. We are committed to pursuing OPCON transition as soon as practicable. The Republic of Korea has made good progress to meet the agreed-upon conditions, but much work remains in terms of its acquisition of critical military capabilities, including for ballistic missile defense, and the organizational structure necessary to lead the combined defense. We will continue to work toward satisfying these conditions in the months ahead.”
―The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused a lot of harm. How are you responding to such a new type of security threats?
“We applaud South Korea’s efforts to fight COVID-19. South Korea has been an example of transparency, effectiveness, and order during these difficult times. We also thank the country for sending necessary resources against the pandemic to the U.S. and countries around the world. Together we must be vigilant in defending against adversaries that may be looking to take advantage of the current crisis to further their own interests.”
―The U.S. has been emphasizing the importance of trilateral cooperation among South Korea, Japan, and itself. What can the U.S. do to strengthen cooperation?
“Both South Korea and Japan have recognized the necessity of open communication on all security issues and made a responsible choice to maintain the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). In addition, we are also making trilateral and multilateral efforts, including U.N. Security Council resolutions. The U.S. has been trying to widen the breadth and deepen the depth of the trilateral security cooperation among the three countries.”