Pentagon's Esper says crucial S.Korea pay more for U.S. troops

by Reuters
Friday, 15 November 2019 06:31 GMT

* Wealthy S.Korea "could and should" pay more for U.S. troop presence - Esper

* U.S.-S.Korea need flexibility in joint drills to support N.Korea diplomacy - Esper

* U.S. also worried about expiry of S.Korea-Japan intelligence pact (Adds comments on drills, details, background, bullet points)

By Joyce Lee and Phil Stewart

SEOUL, Nov 15 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper pressed South Korea on Friday to pay more for the cost of stationing U.S. 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 Jeong Kyeong-doo, Esper also said the two countries have to be flexible with 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 U.S. 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 U.S. military presence aimed at deterring North Korea.

South Korea, Esper said, "is a wealthy country and could and should pay more" for the deployment of U.S. 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," Esper told a news conference.

Jeong said he and 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 U.S. officials demanded up to $5 billion a year, more than five times what Seoul agreed to pay this year under a one-year deal.

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

Jeong said he and 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 November 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. (Reporting by Phil Stewart and Joyce Lee; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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