S. Korea does not have free ride in defense: U.S. envoy
SEOUL, Dec. 30 (Yonhap) -- South Korea does not have a free ride with the United States' defense system and is in fact making serious contributions to the countries' defense alliance, the U.S. ambassador to Seoul said.
Debates on the defense cost-sharing issue have been renewed between the allies recently as U.S. President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly took issue with what he cast as insufficient contributions by U.S.' defense allies, including South Korea and Japan, during his election campaign.
"Korea is not a free rider. In fact it is very strong in terms of its contributions to the alliance," Mark Lippert said in a recent interview with Yonhap News TV, refuting Trump's claims. Yonhap News TV is the broadcasting arm of Yonhap News Agency, South Korea's key wire service.
Lippert cited South Korea's mandatory military conscription, an annual 2-to-5 percent hike in defense costs contributions as well as the fact that Korea pays a majority of the costs to maintain U.S. military facilities as examples of how the country contributes.
"Those are serious contributions to the alliance," Lippert noted.
The ambassador stressed the bilateral alliance will remain robust regardless of the administration change in Washington.
"The relationship is in very good shape ... We do have very strong democratic support for the relationship. The alliance is popular on both sides of the Pacific, so that puts us in a very good position," he said.
"We have a strong foundation, popular support and strong mechanism to manage and to point us in the right," he said.
The Obama administration throughout its eight-year term has left the door to negotiations with North Korea open, Lippert also stressed, calling on Pyongyang to come back to the negotiating table.
"Under the Obama administration, the door to negotiations and dialogue has remained open just like we did with Iran, Cuba and Myanmar. Unfortunately the Kim Jong-un and the North Korean regime have chosen not to walk through that door," he said. "As result, we shifted our calculus away from engagement and more toward sanctions."
The sanctions efforts are aimed at trying to encourage the North Korean regime to return to the negotiating table and engage in credible and authentic negotiations to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, he noted.
He underlined that with an administration change in the U.S., "perhaps, there will be opportunity" for dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.
Lippert also fended off China's protest of the allies' decision to deploy an advanced U.S. anti-missile defense system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in South Korea. The allies announced the plan earlier this year to deploy the missile shield by the end of 2017.
"It's a sovereign decision for the Republic of Korea, made in consultation with the alliance ... It's a defensive system that is necessary to counter a very dangerous and growing missile and nuclear program of North Korea," Lippert said.
"It's not aimed at a third country, it's not aimed at China," according to Lippert.
He said the reason why THAAD is necessary is China's treaty ally -- North Korea -- is developing missile and nuclear programs, urging Beijing to focus more on getting North Korea to roll back its nuclear program.
"The U.S.-Korea alliance remains strong and together we engage the Chinese to do the right thing and put more emphasis on resolving very dangerous missile nuclear threats posed by North Koreans," he said.
He also said the U.S. expects "policy continuity on THAAD deployment" even after a government change in South Korea, a comment apparently mindful of the opposition block's growing pledge to reverse the deployment plan here.