Cohen has chat with defense chief

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Cohen has chat with defense chief

A former U.S. defense chief made a quiet visit to Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin earlier this week, fueling suspicions about U.S. pressure on Seoul over the delayed procurement projects.

William Cohen, who served as secretary of defense from 1997 to 2001 in the Bill Clinton administration, met with Kim at the Ministry of National Defense Monday. The two met without aides except for interpreters.

“Cohen asked for the meeting as a former defense secretary,” an official from the ministry told the JoongAng Ilbo on Tuesday.

Cohen arrived in Seoul Sunday to attend an event celebrating the opening of a Seoul office by global law firm DLA Piper. Cohen is a senior adviser to the firm.

The meeting took place before the Ministry of National Defense’s briefing to the presidential transition team of Park Geun-hye. The briefing will take place tomorrow.

Another senior ministry official said Kim and Cohen talked about some sensitive issues including procurement projects of the Korean government and the upcoming defense cost sharing negotiations for the U.S. Forces Korea.

A project to upgrade Korea’s aged fleet of fighter jets and a plan to purchase high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles are two major procurement programs.

“The government is holding bidding for the two projects,” the official said. “Not only American arms companies but also European companies are invited. The projects were delayed and Cohen stressed the importance of improving Korea’s capabilities in time for Seoul’s takeover of wartime operational control in 2015.”

The government originally planned to select the next-generation fighter jets by the end of last year, but the 8.29 trillion won ($7.81 billion) project was postponed. The budget for the project, aimed at purchasing 60 units starting in 2016, was also cut by 130 billion won.

The competition has narrowed down to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter by Lockheed Martin, the F-15 SE Silent Eagle by Boeing and the Eurofighter by Europe’s multinational defense group EADS.

The government also allocated 450 billion won in the budget to purchase the Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial reconnaissance system, but the price tag from the United States is 1.25 trillion won.

U.S. defense industries are suffering from major defense budget cuts and Korea, one of their major clients, is becoming more important than ever.

Kim and Cohen also reportedly talked about the defense cost sharing. As of now, Seoul pays about 836.1 billion won, 42 percent of the expenses needed for the U.S. troops stationed in Korea, and Washington has reportedly asked for an increase to 50 percent.

Speculation rose that Cohen’s meeting with Kim was indirect U.S. pressure on the incoming administration as the Defense Ministry was scheduled to brief the presidential transition team tomorrow. Park, who won the presidency for the conservative ruling Saenuri Party ticket, has often stressed that national security is her top priority.

Tomorrow the ministry will brief the transition team on about 10 pending issues.

“We are preparing to report the ministry’s positions on major ongoing projects such as defense reform and the takeover of the wartime operational control,” a ministry official in charge of the briefing said. “We are also preparing a report on Park’s election pledges.”

Of her major pledges, Park said she will gradually cut mandatory military service of conscripts from 21 months to 18 months. “We are not opposing it, but operational capabilities must not be weakened,” he said.

By Jeong Yong-soo, Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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