Austin stresses alliance with S. Korea against ‘unprecedented challenges’ from N.K., China

March 17, 2021

 U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Wednesday the alliance with South Korea has “never been more important” given “unprecedented challenges” from North Korea and China, as he reaffirmed Washington’s security commitment to the South.

Austin made the remark at the start of his first in-person talks with South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook in Seoul, calling their alliance a “linchpin” for peace, security and prosperity for Northeast Asia, and their military readiness a “top priority.”

“Given the unprecedented challenges posed by both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and China, the U.S.-ROK alliance has never been more important,” Austin said, referring to South and North Korea by their official names.

The remarks came a day after Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, slammed an ongoing combined exercise between Seoul and Washington, warning the U.S. not to “cause a stink” if it wants to sleep in peace for the next four years.

“I am here today to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea,” Austin said. “You and I can both agree that military readiness is a top priority, and that our combined readiness must ensure that we are ready to fight tonight, if needed.”

The North has been trying to bolster its nuclear and missile capabilities with the aim of developing a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the mainland U.S. The country has recently shown signs of operations at some of its nuclear facilities.

“Suh and Austin reaffirmed their commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the establishment of a permanent peace,” the statement by the defense ministry read.

In a joint contribution to The Washington Post on Monday, Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said they, along with South Korea and Japan, will “strategize together on how to confront shared threats such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.”

Suh also said in his opening remarks that it is of “utmost importance” to maintain the combined defense posture and the formidable deterrent against North Korea, and vowed to “further strengthen our bond as a military alliance.”

The two sides also shared the importance of trilateral security cooperation involving Japan “to respond to the North’s nuclear and missile threats and to form a cooperative security structure in Northeast Asia,” according to the statement.

“Secretary Austin said the three-way cooperation through improvement in Seoul-Tokyo ties is crucial to deal with their common threats on and around the peninsula, and Suh said the government will push for plans for cooperation with Japan without a hitch” a ministry official told reporters.

Relations between the neighbors have fallen to one of the lowest ebbs in recent years, as historical and diplomatic spats have spilled over into the security realm.

In 2019, the Seoul government decided not to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a bilateral military information-sharing pact with Japan, in protest of its export curbs, though it suspended the decision at the last minute amid U.S. pressure against its termination.

Also on the table was the envisioned transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean troops from Washington to Seoul. It is conditions-based, not time-based, but South Korea hopes to expedite the transition to achieve the goal within the term of the current administration that ends in May 2022.

“The OPCON transition was also a main agenda. Suh fully explained our stance, and Austin listened to him very carefully,” the ministry official said. “The two sides noted great progress for the move, and vowed to continue efforts.”

The process for the envisioned transition has been delayed, as the two sides were not able to carry out their planned Full Operational Capability (FOC) test. It was supposed to take place during their combined exercise last year but has not been fully conducted due to the COVID-19 situation and Washington’s focus more on their combat posture during the exercises.

“The two ministers shared the assessment that the combined exercise this time has been carried out successfully,” the ministry said, adding that they did not discuss Kim Yo-jong’s remarks.

Referring to a recently concluded deal on the sharing of the cost for stationing U.S. troops here, Austin said it reflects U.S. President Joe Biden’s “commitment to reinvigorating and modernizing” its alliances around the world.

Austin arrived at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul, from Japan earlier in the day for a three-day stay as part of his first Asia swing since taking office in January. He is the first Cabinet-level U.S. official of the Biden administration to visit the country.

On Thursday, Suh and Austin will join Blinken and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong for a “two plus two” meeting, which also serves as a venue to coordinate their policy measures toward North Korea and to discuss ways to further boost the alliance.

They will then initial the defense cost sharing deal and have a joint press conference.

After paying a courtesy call on President Moon Jae-in, Suh and Austin plan to visit a state cemetery in Seoul to pay tribute to fallen heroes.

On Friday, Austin plans to meet with American service members stationed in South Korea before leaving for India, they said.