Korea eye scaling back joint training over virus concerns

Clay Curtis
February 27, 2020

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that South Korea can and should contribute more to its defense in terms of financial contributions to the upkeep of American troops on the peninsula.

He said that there were 13 confirmed cases of coranavirus among South Korean military personnel. More than a dozen members of the South Korean military have also been infected.

At the Pentagon press briefing, Esper and Jeong also appeared to remain far apart on resolving the issue of South Korea's compensation for the USA military presence.

Esper said the top South Korean and American commanders in Seoul "are looking at scaling back" some training exercises "due to concerns about the coronavirus".

Last spring's exercises were scaled back as the United States continued diplomatic engagement with North Korea.

The exercises are held periodically throughout the year and are meant to prepare troops and commanders for potential combat against North Korea.

"The situation is quite serious", Esper said.

As "a global economic powerhouse and an equal partner in the preservation of peace on the peninsula", Esper added, "South Korea can and should contribute more to its defense".

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Last year, the USA and South Korea announced that the huge annual training exercises known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve were being canceled and would be replaced by a number of small-unit exercises in an effort to cut tensions on the peninsula.

Negotiations on the issue between the two countries have remained in a deadlock.

"We are considering a higher rate" of funding, Jeong said, but the USA wants more.

While South Korea has said it is willing to pay more, the USA and South Korea have not agreed to the size of Seoul's contribution, despite several rounds of negotiations.

"Shouldering the cost of our common defense can not fall disproportionately to the American taxpayer", Esper said at the Monday evening press conference, arguing for a "more sustainable and equitable means of sharing" it.

The last "special measures agreement" (SMA) lapsed at the end of December after multiple rounds of talks yielded no progress, and now the USA military says funding will soon run out for thousands of South Korean civilians who work to support the bases.

The so-called Special Measures Agreement helps to offset the significant cost of stationing US forces., which have operated there since the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953.

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