August 9, 2019 12:37 PM ET
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has wrapped up his first trip to Asia since assuming office last month, focusing on shoring up U.S. alliances in the region.
The U.S.-South Korea alliance “is ironclad & remains the linchpin of peace & security on the Korean Peninsula & in Northeast Asia,” Esper said on Twitter, after meeting in the South Korean capital, Seoul, with Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo.
Esper also met with President Moon Jae-in and Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha. The Pentagon chief did not brief reporters before departing Seoul on Friday afternoon.
Esper and Jeong “reaffirmed their commitments to supporting their diplomatic efforts for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of a lasting peace,” according to a joint statement quoted by the Yonhap News Agency.
The agency also reported that Esper encouraged the country to participate in a security coalition in the Strait of Hormuz near Iran.
Esper’s Asia tour comes as the U.S. alliance structure is under pressure from internal divisions and major external powers such as Russia and China. The trip also signaled a possible shift in the military balance in the region, when Esper publicly called for the U.S. to deploy land-based, intermediate-range missiles in Asia.
Jeong acknowledged to Esper that a snowballing trade fight between Japan and South Korea was undermining security cooperation among those countries and the U.S., a three-party alliance at the center of the Asian security structure the U.S. built in the aftermath of World War II.
Seoul is considering pulling out of a 2016 intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, following Tokyo’s decision to downgrade trade ties and impose export restrictions on South Korea.
Another rift within the alliance stems from the Trump administration’s quest to get Seoul to shoulder more of the financial burden of basing U.S. troops in South Korea. President Trump tweeted ahead of Esper’s visit that Seoul had agreed to pay more and negotiations had begun. The South Korean government said the talks had in fact not yet started. It is not clear whether Esper raised the issue with his hosts.
Externally, the alliance is under pressure from North Korea, which has launched salvos of short-range missiles, partly in protest against U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises that began this month — even though Seoul and Washington scaled down the drills to avoid offending the North Korean government.
Russia and China also appear to be probing the alliance for potential weak spots. Their joint overflight late last month of islands claimed by both South Korea and Japan was unprecedented and prompted South Korea to fire warning shots at a Russian military plane.
Notably absent in Seoul was discussion of the issue of a U.S. deployment of land-based, intermediate-range missiles to Asia, which has sparked debate across the region.
Speaking en route to Australia last week, Esper said he would like to see the missiles deployed in a matter of months, although he admitted it might take longer.