Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, has called on South Korea to pay more towards the cost of hosting US troops, as Washington increases the pressure on Seoul to satisfy a demand from President Donald Trump.
Washington and Seoul are renegotiating the agreement that determines how much each pays towards keeping 28,500 US troops in South Korea. The Trump administration wants Seoul to boost its contribution fivefold to roughly $5bn.
Speaking at a news conference with his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyeong-doo, Mr Esper said it was “crucial” they reached an agreement that “increased burden sharing” by Seoul.
“This is a very strong alliance that we have, but Korea is a wealthy country and could and should pay more to offset the cost of defence,” he said.
Mr Jeong declined to confirm the US was requesting a fivefold increase. But he stressed that the allies needed to ensure that the final amount was at a “fair and mutually acceptable level”.
Mr Esper was speaking during a visit to Seoul with General Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. US relations with South Korea and Japan have come under strain with Mr Trump rebuking US allies for not spending more on defence and floating the idea of removing troops from the Asian countries.
Mr Esper and Gen Milley are using their visit to reassure Seoul about the alliance, notwithstanding tensions over burden sharing. Mr Esper said he had reassured his South Korean counterpart that the alliance was “iron clad”. In Tokyo this week, Gen Milley called the US-Japan alliance “rock solid”.
Speaking to reporters en route to Seoul on Thursday, Mr Esper had said the US military was open to altering its joint exercises on the Korean peninsula in order to “empower and enable our diplomats to sit down with the North Koreans”.
Asked on Friday whether the US and South Korea had discussed changing their approach, Mr Esper said the two sides had discussed military exercises but did not say whether any decision had been made.
Gen Milley and Mr Esper used their visit to urge Seoul to reconsider its threat to tear up an intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo next week. The agreement has fallen victim to a spat related to a court ruling against Japanese companies that used South Korea forced labour during wartime. Tokyo responded by imposing export control restrictions that Seoul asserted were retribution for the court ruling.
Mr Esper said he had urged Tokyo and Seoul to “sit down and work through their differences” over the issue. But neither he nor Mr Jeong showed any sign that South Korea was preparing to reverse course.
A recent meeting between Shinzo Abe, Japanese prime minister, and South Korean president Moon Jae-in at the Asean summit in Bangkok revived hopes of a negotiated settlement. But diplomats warned the resumption of talks between the two leaders did not mean there was a solution acceptable to both sides.
Mr Abe does want to repeat the experience of a 2015 settlement with Seoul over the issue of wartime “comfort women”, which was renounced by Mr Moon within months.