Esper confident about 'readiness' of U.S. troops in Korea

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Esper confident about 'readiness' of U.S. troops in Korea

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, left, shakes hands with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo at the Pentagon in Washington on Feb. 24. [YONHAP]

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, left, shakes hands with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo at the Pentagon in Washington on Feb. 24. [YONHAP]

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that he is confident of the “readiness” of U.S. troops in Korea despite the coronavirus pandemic.  
 
“I can confidently say that we're preserving the 'fight tonight' status readiness that we need on the peninsula with our ROK [Republic of Korea] allies," Esper said, speaking with the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank Monday on U.S. defense policy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
 
Esper was asked by Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, about the preparation of the U.S. forces on the peninsula amid the coronavirus outbreak and a de facto moratorium of Pyongyang’s nuclear and ICBM tests for a suspension of large-scale Seoul-Washington military exercises as a result of President Donald Trump’s engagement with North Korea.  
 
“It's all about deterring bad behavior, and they've been able to do it and preserve the readiness as a result,” Esper said.
 
Esper said Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), has done a “great job” preserving the readiness level of the American troops on the peninsula and credited him for “bold actions” since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Korea in February.  
 
Saying he speaks with Abrams weekly, Esper added that the USFK is in “very good shape.”  
 
However, Esper noted concern that such suspension of U.S. military exercises amid Covid-19 “may have an accumulative impact.”
 
He continued, “Over time it could accumulate, particularly as we look at how we train with our friends and allies.”  
 
When asked by O’Hanlon if the U.S. troops are capable of coordinating with South Korean units and not losing skills such as being able to “mimic what an actual fight would be like,” Esper replied, “That’s right, we can preserve readiness, our capability.”
 
Esper continued, “We also augment that capability and that training with off-peninsula forces, resources, so whether it’s a bomber presence, fighter aircraft, of course a naval presence, we bring that as well,” adding, it “doesn’t have to be stationed on the peninsula to do that.”  
 
In late April, the South Korean and U.S. Air Forces conducted combined air exercises without prior announcement. The exercises had previously been suspended in 2019 amid denuclearization negotiations between North Korea and the United States. South Korean F-15K and KF-16 fighter jets U.S. and F-16 fighters took part in the squadron-level exercise, seen as being held amid North Korea’s continued shorter-range missile provocations.  
 
Security experts have expressed concerns over how the latest developments in North Korea could impact Seoul and Washington’s defense cost-sharing negotiations amid uncertainties surrounding Pyongyang and South Korea’s continued reliance on U.S. intelligence. 
 
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reemerged in the public eye after 20 days through state media Saturday after much speculation over his well-being. The following day, North Korea fired several rounds at a South Korean guard post in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) in Cheorwon County, Gangwon.   
 
Despite rampant speculation that leader Kim was critically ill or even dead in recent weeks, the South Korean government has consistently maintained that there are “no indications of anything out of the usual.”  
 
However, security experts point out that Seoul relied on U.S. satellites and strategic assets for such accurate analysis. 
 
Such was the case when former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke in 2008, and South Korean intelligence authorities relied on the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to analyze the situation. Security officials have pointed out that other than human intelligence, or Humint, Seoul continues to largely rely on U.S. reconnaissance and intelligence assets.
 
Park Won-gon, a professor of international studies at Handong Global University, told the JoongAng Ilbo Monday, “One of the many military capabilities provided by the United States to South Korea is military intelligence. When our government collected information on the movement of Chairman Kim this time around, some reliance on U.S. reconnaissance satellites and intelligence could be seen, so the United States may use this as a card” in the defense cost-sharing talks.  
 
Nam Sung-wook, a unification studies professor at Korea University, said, “As President Trump meticulously calculates the give and take, this current event is a security issue in which South Korea and military showed its dependence on the United States [for intelligence].”
 
Seoul and Washington have also been struggling to renew their Special Measures Agreement (SMA) on the upkeep of 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in Korea after their previous deal expired at the end of last year. The delay in sealing the 11th SMA and the resulting furlough of some 4,000 Korean personnel working for the USFK has raised concerns about U.S. troop’s readiness posture on the peninsula and security and stability in the Northeast Asia region.   
 
President Trump last month confirmed he had rejected an offer by Seoul to raise its contributions by a reported 13 percent, saying it is not enough.  
 
Trump told Reuters in late April on the SMA negotiations, “They've agreed to pay a lot of money. They're paying a lot more money than they did when I got here.”  
 
Kim Ki-ho, a defense studies professor at Kyonggi University, said, “During Kim Jong-un’s disappearance, the United States employed all of its newest strategic assets and poured many efforts into acquiring intelligence.” He added that Washington is likely to call upon Seoul to bear the burden of such intelligence-sharing as well.  
 
BY SARAH KIM, KIM DA-YOUNG   [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
 

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