Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper and South Korean National Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo discussed their nations' combined military readiness exercise program during the 51st annual Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul, South Korea, today.
The two defense leaders spoke informally about the General Security of Military Information Agreement between Japan and South Korea that is set to expire Nov. 22.
Defense officials have said the exercise program ensures that U.S. and South Korean forces are ready. Exercises have a deterrent value, officials have said, and they ensure the combined force can defeat an enemy if diplomacy fails.
"I also shared with the minister — and I think he agrees — the purpose of our armed forces and exercises is not only to buttress our diplomacy, but to enable and empower it," Esper said during a press conference after the meeting.
"We always have to remain flexible with how we support our diplomats to ensure we do not close any doors that may allow forward progress on a diplomatic front," the defense secretary said.
The two men left the door open to tinkering with or cancelling exercises, if it will support the diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea. Esper said any decision on exercises must be made in a consultative manner, and that the United States and South Korea must "approach it as alliance partners."
The North Korean regime has for decades objected to U.S. and South Korean military readiness exercises. Alliance officials, through many administrations, have stressed that these exercises are defensive in nature and part of the deterrence effort on the peninsula.
"The U.S. and [South Korean] counterparts will provide active support to make sure that there is support for diplomatic efforts, and make sure that through modified versions of the exercise program, we maintain the most robust defense posture," Esper said.
The American and South Korean leaders did speak about the General Security of Military Information Agreement between Japan and South Korea. The South Korean defense minister stressed that the agreement is an important instrument in maintaining trilateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan and South Korea. "In the time that is left on the clock, I hope that Japan and the Republic of Korea can come together in a positive direction," Jeong said through a translator.
"[The agreement] is an effective tool for the United States, Korea and Japan to share timely information, particularly in times of war," Esper said. "Expiration of GSOMIA would have an impact on our effectiveness, so we have urged all sides to sit down to work out their differences. The only ones who benefit from the expiration of GSOMIA and continued friction between Seoul and Tokyo are Pyongyang and Beijing."
It is in the interests of North Korea and China to drive a wedge between Japan and South Korea, the defense secretary said, and "that reason alone should be powerful enough for us all to sit down and work together to deal with our common challenges."