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U.S. Department of Defense

February 24, 2020

Joint Press Briefing by Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper and ROK Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo

Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark T. Esper; Republic of Korea Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DR. MARK T. ESPER: Well, good afternoon, everyone. It is a privilege for me today to host Minister Jeong here at the Pentagon as we honor and deepen the longstanding defense partnership between the United States and South Korea.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Then as now, the United States stands fully committed to the defense of the Republic of Korea. Forged through years of combat and shared sacrifice, our alliance is ironclad and remains the linchpin of security, stability and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in the larger Indo-Pacific region.

Our shared values, interests and commitment to the rules-based international order form the foundation of an alliance that is as vital today as it was in the 1950s.

The U.S.-ROK alliance is strong, and we appreciate South Korea's contributions to our collective security. Together, we are committed to maintaining our robust combined defense posture, especially in light of the unprecedented threats we face today including those that extend beyond the Korean Peninsula.

However, shouldering the cost of our common defense cannot fall disproportionately to the American taxpayer. As such, we must find a more sustainable and equitable means of sharing the costs of our combined defense with the Republic of Korea.

As a global economic powerhouse and an equal partner in the preservation of peace on the peninsula, South Korea can and should contribute more to its defense. Furthermore, the current special measures agreement captures only a portion of the overall costs associated with the United States' defense of South Korea. The United States believes it should cover more.

While much work needs to be done to bridge the gap between our two sides on the 11th SMA [Special Measures Agreement], we had a productive and candid discussion on this topic today. The United States remains fully committed to reaching a mutually beneficial and equitable agreement that will strengthen the alliance and our combined defense long into the future.

Increased burden-sharing is a top priority for the United States across our alliances. We consistently urge our NATO allies to contribute more to our shared defense and we ask the same of South Korea and other partners.

Turning to other topics of mutual interest, we reaffirmed our commitment to maintain a robust defense posture and strengthen our coordination toward our common objective of the complete denuclearization of North Korea in a final, fully verified manner. In this regard, we stand firm in our enforcement of the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The minister and I also discussed the importance of cooperation among the United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan, based on our common security interests. We reaffirmed our commitment to continue this trilateral defense cooperation, to include high-level policy consultations, exercises and information sharing.

Additionally, we continue to review progress toward meeting all conditions for the eventual transition of operational control to a ROK commander.

Finally, we are working to strengthen our collaboration in the space and cyber domains to ensure an effective joint response against hybrid and emerging threats.

In short, our mutual defense cooperation remains robust, and we continue to enhance these efforts in a number of important areas, including peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, counterpiracy operations and other regional security cooperation activities.

I was encouraged by today's discussion and I look forward, Minister Jeong, to continuing our work together. Thank you.

MINISTER OF NATIONAL DEFENSE JEONG KYEONG-DOO (through translator): I would first like to begin by thanking Secretary Esper and his team for their welcome for myself and my delegation.

Before coming to the Pentagon today, I visited the Korean War Memorial with Secretary Esper, and expressed deep respect towards the countless warriors that have fought together for freedom and peace.

This visit to the memorial is especially meaningful in the sense that the secretary and I came together on the need for close cooperation in all areas to prevent another awful tragedy on the Korean Peninsula and Europe on the 70th anniversary of the Korean War.

Once again, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Secretary Esper. In the subsequent meeting , Secretary Esper and I had a candid discussion with regards to the current issues of our alliance and the future direction of the ROK-U.S. alliance.

First, we have reaffirmed that the ironclad ROK-U.S. alliance, as well as a secure military posture and combined defense posture, continues to be robust.

Some have raised concerns about our weakened combined defense posture in light of the modified combined exercise and training implemented to support diplomatic efforts of denuclearization talks with the North.

However, as the key individuals from the Department of Defense has testified in Congress, the ROK-U.S. forces have conducted a similar number and frequency of exercise and training since the modifications were made to the exercise and training events.

As a result, the ROK-U.S. forces have demonstrated timely response to the 13 launches of 25 missiles by North Korea last year. At the same time, the ROK and U.S. are closely sharing information about all activities, including the nuclear and missiles issue from North Korea, keeping a close eye on its activities even this very moment.

Going forward, the combined exercise and training will continue in a modified manner to maintain the combined defense posture, guarantee the environment for transition of wartime operational control, and sustain the steadfast ROK-U.S. alliance.

Furthermore, the secretary and I have assessed that the comprehensive military agreement implemented 17 months since Sept. 28, 2018, has contributed to the elevation of inter-Korean military tension and trust-building, as well as reaffirming that we will continue to collaborate in the process of its implementation.

With regards to the transitional wartime OPCON, we have reviewed the progress since the 51st Security Consultative Meeting last year and agreed to undertake close cooperation to develop strategic development needed for final operating capability certification and assessment, special permanent military committee plans for nuclear and WMD response, with capabilities that comprise a condition of OPCON, transition and certification and assessment plans for the air force itself.

OPCON transition begins with a systematic and active manner based on, not on timing, but on conditions. Certification of each condition will be assessed by the ROK and U.S. jointly in a transparent and credible manner. Even after the transition, the alliance guiding principles agreed upon at the 50th SCM will securely maintain the combined defense posture and the alliance and its posture will only strengthen as a result of continued presence of the USFK and guaranteed role of the United Nations command.

With regard to the (inaudible), the secretary and I have agreed that there must be an agreement soon at a reasonable and a fair manner in a military win-win -- mutually win-win interaction, and ROK and U.S. will work together for these goals.

At the same time, I would also like to say that the ROK government is contributing in various forms both directly and indirectly besides the SMA to the stable process for USFK to realize peace through strength and guarantee the environment for OPCON transition.

The ROK government has set the 2020 defense budget at approximately $43 billion. This will not only allow us to achieve critical military capabilities and nuclear and WMD threat response capabilities early, but also include the standard of the alliance combined defense posture and contribute to our shared values and principles around the world.

Furthermore, Secretary Esper and I have exchanged our opinion on the regional politics of the Middle East and matters of violent threat collaboration, and we will fund our commitments to make sure freedom of navigation based on the rule-based international order.

This year marks the 70th year since the beginning of the Korean War; 70 years ago, countless young Americans have come in a heartbeat to the defense of our land now known as the Republic of Korea. Their noble sacrifice and dedication for what it is today. And for their -- I deeply thank the Korean War veterans and their families as well as the U.S. government to make sure that the great sacrifice of ROK and U.S. forces 70 years ago did not go in vain.

We have committed ourselves to continue developing the alliance in a mutually complimentary and mutual beneficial way. Thank you very much.

Q: Caitlin Kenney with Stars and Stripes. My first question is to Secretary Esper. Is the U.S. and South Korea considering canceling any upcoming joint command post exercises or other joint training because of coronavirus concerns?

And to the defense minister, on the Special Measures Agreement, what does South Korea want Americans to understand about how you currently contribute to U.S. forces in South Korea? And what do you hope to agree on with the new agreement?

SEC. ESPER: I will speak first on your question. And I think the minister wants to add something as well. Gen. Abrams and Gen. Park are looking at scaling back the command post training due to concerns about the coronavirus.

Mr. Minister, do you want to elaborate more?

MIN. JEONG (through translator): As you're well aware, currently with respect to the joint exercise, we are planning as scheduled -- that we have progressed as scheduled. As you're well aware, due to the coronavirus in Korea, the situation is quite serious. Because of that, currently the exercise and the Korean units are being curtailed. So they are now moving around.

So we are working with Gen. Abrams and Gen. Park, we will find out the situation and decide how we are going to conduct our exercises.


MIN. JEONG (through translator): ... to the combined command post training, normal planning had been under way for quite some time. But at the same time, everyone is aware that the COVID-19 situation in the Republic of Korea grows serious by the day. And especially even before just normal unit level training for the Republic of Korea, because movement has been limited between units, the situation is limited.

I believe that as far as the situation in the Republic of Korea for combined training events, Chairman Park of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Republic of Korea, and Gen. Abrams will make the right decision through close coordination.

SEC. ESPER: As we address any -- as those two gentlemen, officers address any concerns, I'm sure that we will remain fully ready to deal with any threats that we might face together.

Q: On the agreement.

MIN. JEONG (through translator): For starters, with regards to the joint exercise, under any circumstances using the variety of ways so that we will do our best to continue to strengthen our U.S.-ROK alliance and other -- Korean Peninsula's peace process will be continued.


MIN. JEONG (through translator): ... answer I'd like to add one more time that the combined training events that through any types of modified and various measures that we can take, we'll take them to make sure that the combined defense posture is robust and the alliance will be unwavering, and that we continue to provide support for the diplomatic measures in support of the peninsula peace process.

In regards to the ongoing SMA negotiations, we currently have had our sixth round of negotiations on the SMA.

As to where we apply the 8.2% increase last year...


MIN. JEONG (through translator): Last year was also a very big increase for us in terms of the 8.2 increase that we had for the SMA contribution.

During the 11th SMA negotiations, we are going to -- we are thinking about increasing the higher rate.


MIN. JEONG (through translator): ... SMA I know that for Republic of Korea we are considering a higher rate of increase for the SMA contributions for these negotiations as well.

However, what the United States government demands, which is substantially higher, I think there is some difference between the...


MIN. JEONG (through translator): ... it is also true that there still remains a difference in position in regards to the large increase that has been proposed from the U.S. side.

Currently the negotiations are not taking place right at this moment, but even though that we have gaps, perhaps, we need to do our best to narrow the gap, so that I hope that...

And while negotiations currently stand at a standstill, I believe it's very important for the negotiating teams of both sides to meet as often as they can to close that gap of perception. And I hope that the conversation can continue again as soon as possible.

And according to legal procedures, the Gen. Abrams notified that...


MIN. JEONG (through translator): ... at this point in time according to legal procedures, Gen. Abrams, commander of the United States Forces Korea, has notified the Korean Service Corps of a possible furlough starting the first day of April.

And as minister of national defense, I have the strong belief that nothing should hinder the stable progress in terms of guaranteeing (inaudible) or stable service conditions, as well as maintaining a robust combined defense posture.

As of April 1st I think the SMA has been a very challenging situation, so I spoke to...


MIN. JEONG (through translator): ... with regards to a possible furlough for Korean Service Corps during the first of April, I believe, is a very difficult pill to swallow. I did discuss this with Secretary Esper as well.

And what I have discussed with Secretary Esper, for example, is a possible support from the USFK operations and management budget to support the wages for the Korean Service Corps. And if this option should fall through, I also discussed the option of utilizing 2020 budget for the SMA that was set in 2019 on the basis of our SMA contributions and the 10th SMA.

And so for this we would have to reach a conditional agreement to supply just the wages portion and go forward from there. And I hope that early coordination of population can be had with regards to the SMA negotiations as we go into the future.

STAFF: Mr. Kim, SBS.

Q: Yes, my name is Jun Yong Kim from SBS.

I would like to ask the question to the minister first. I am aware that the units movement has been banned. Then what about the Korea-U.S. exercise, how are they going to be affected? Do you have any alternative plans? Are you thinking about that?

And also (inaudible) on the coronavirus situation, are you thinking about any alternate plans, and I think this is connected to a CONOP transition. So once that happened, then I think the CONOP transition timeline might be altered. No?


Q: ... Secretary Esper and this question is about controversy of dart. And did the U.S. have a discussion with Korea about the possibility of relocation dart launchers to other part of the country? And is there any possibility to deploying more launchers on South Korean soil?

MIN. JEONG (through translator): I will answer your question concerning coronavirus. Currently based on yesterday, 13 were found positive. So this is a serious situation. And also so they're not taking any breaks and they are not moving to different units.

So unless it's inevitable, they're not supposed to move between units. So with the respect to exercise, I believe that there are some -- it can effect. But considering the normal schedules and normal plans that we were able to execute -- so since I'm not in the United States, although I'm not personally involved with this, but I have been coordinating with Gen. Park and Gen. Abrams. They have been assessing the situation closely. So I understand that they started having discussion as to how they're going to execute -- exercise if there are any changes then that would not affect the combined defense post tour.

And that would not affect also -- adversely affect the kind of transition deadlines. So we have -- think about -- or we are going to do that.


MIN. JEONG (through translator): So in regards to the Coronavirus situation within the armed forces, as of yesterday we had 13 confirmed cases in ROK armed forces. We do regard the situation as a serious one currently. We have shut down vacation days of -- and the service leaves from their bases.

We have also, as I said before, limited their movement across the nation unless it's a very inevitable situation. So where they -- so with regards to the combined training events, while there may be influences rising from the situation, I also need to consider the fact that normal planning have been going on to the point I left the nation.

And I'm in the U.S. right now so I'm not participating directly in the decision process in Korea. However, I do believe that Gen. Abrams and Chairman Park are getting a hold of the situation. I've started discussions to reach a good decision.

But should there be any changes to the training regime I -- I believe, as I say always, that we will always consider ways to make sure the combined defense posture remains robust and that there aren't any problems or influences on the assessments related -- assessment programs related to the conditional transfer or -- or time operational control.

SEC. ESPER: So there are no plans to redeploy THAAD on the peninsula at this time. We did discuss THAAD. The most important thing that we discussed is the criticality of opening the ground line of communication.

For 30 months now, U.S. and ROK soldiers have been denied the ability to get resupplied and fitted through a ground line of communication. I don't think it's right or appropriate. They need these assets to take care of their health and safety and welfare.

And so the minister and I spoke about how the -- the importance of quickly opening up these lines of communication to take care of our forces that are solely there to protect the Republic of Korea on the peninsula.

Q: Mr. Secretary, thank you for doing this. Changing subjects just a little bit. Under Secretary John Rood was fired after the impeachment (inaudible). Was it retaliation for his role in, sort of, denying military funding to Ukraine?

SEC. ESPER: No, and I'm not going to go any further into personnel issues. I made a positive statement about John's contributions, as did the president. And so that's all I have to say on that matter.

Q: (Inaudible) Washington correspondent.

Secretary, I think Mr. Jeong just touched up on the possibility of maybe un-readiness, if there is furloughed workers starting from April 1st. How do you validate the readiness of the forces if and when these employees are furloughed for the foreseeable future? Do you have any plans to maybe mitigate that challenge?

And my second question would be, do we have any information about the situation in North Korea with regard to the coronavirus outbreak? They're also surrounded by China and other countries that are affected.

SEC. ESPER: So I'll just speak to the first question. On the first question -- heck, I forgot what your first question was already.

Q: The furlough ...

SEC. ESPER: Furlough, that's right. So Gen. Abrams -- Gen. Abrams has a plan to maintain the workforce required to deal with life, health, and safety issues and to meet minimum mission requirements.

He is briefing personnel in Korea today -- tomorrow, I believe. And so our plan is to continue along that route as we discussed today.

Q: If I may, Gen. Abrams actually asked for the funding that will last throughout the summer -- only throughout the summer. Is the U.S. preparing for the long-term SMA negotiation that's not going to become concluded?

SEC. ESPER: Right now what we're doing is, we are engaging negotiations with the Republic of Korea. The minister and I are both hopeful that they'll reach agreement soon, preferably before the end of March. Otherwise, beginning April 1st we will begin furloughing Korean national workers.

Q: So the funding that will last only throughout the summer, only for just a portion of the ...

SEC. ESPER: I think I -- I think I've spoken -- answered your question.

STAFF: (Inaudible).

Q: And North Korea situation.

SEC. ESPER: I don't have anything to offer to you on that one. OK. Good. Thanks everybody.

STAFF: Thanks, Mr. Secretary.

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