(LEAD) (News Focus) S. Korea, U.S. military alliance in transitional period
By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Oct. 2 (Yonhap) -- Defense leaders of South Korea and the United States on Wednesday reaffirmed their pledge to maintain their robust decades-long alliance as part of Washington's pivot to Asia, carefully navigating a range of difficult issues over the American forces stationed on the peninsula.
Pending issues are the future of the wartime operational control slated for December 2015, and the burden sharing of the upkeep cost for 28,500 American soldiers stationed in South Korea with negotiations currently underway to replace the existing treaty expiring soon.
South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin (L) and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (R) ride in a motorcade during a welcoming ceremony held at Seoul's defense ministry on Oct. 2, 2013. (Yonhap)
During the annual Security Consultative Meeting (SCM), South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and his American counterpart, Chuck Hagel, evaluated the growing North Korean threat and capabilities of South Korean forces whether Seoul is ready to regain its wartime operational control (OPCON) from Washington as scheduled in 2015.
The issue has drawn keen attention in South Korea, which still remains technically at war with the North, especially after the communist state conducted its third nuclear test in February in defiance of U.N. resolutions.
Seoul has asked Washington to reconsider the timing to give it more time to bolster its defense capabilities, but it failed to get an answer from the Pentagon, which faces tough budget choices under a constrained fiscal environment.
During the Wednesday meeting, the two nations failed to reach an agreement and decided to continue discussions throughout this year, illustrating difficulties to narrow the gap over the sensitive security issue.
"We are continuing to work with the Republic of Korea based on the timelines we are now dealing with. As I said, these are always conditions based," Hagel said during a joint conference in Seoul. "We are not going to make any decision that is in the end not in the interest of the Republic of Korea and the U.S. ... Both of us are working through those conditions, and I am very optimistic that we will have an agreement on those conditions."
In this regard, Hagel reaffirmed the continuing U.S. commitment to provide specific "bridging capabilities" until South Korea obtains "full self-defense capabilities" using its full range of military capabilities, including the nuclear umbrella, a conventional strike and missile defense.
Kim pledged to bolster his nation's defense and missile strike capabilities, closely cooperating with the U.S. forces for enhanced operability.
South Korea currently operates 48 PAC-2 missiles imported from Germany, which have an interception rate of less than 40 percent. As part of a mid-term defense plan, the military plans to upgrade the current system to the "hit-to-kill" PAC-3 developed by Lockheed Martin with improved guidance accuracy, and adopt military satellites and spy drones.
In addition to the low-tier missile system, Seoul has been eyeing a high-altitude, long-range missile system, like the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) also developed by Lockheed Martin, according to industry sources and military officials.
Although there are calls to adopt the long-range missile defense to establish a multi-layered missile shield against the North, Seoul's defense ministry has remained cautious over the American Army program as it could spur a regional arms race involving China and further contribute to mounting costs in the national missile program.
"Under the geographical environment on the Korean Peninsula, establishing the low-altitude missile defense is more efficient than the high-altitude missile defense," a senior ministry official said on the condition of anonymity. "The South Korean military will cooperate with the U.S. in intelligence sharing to detect North Korean missiles to bolster the KAMD."
The two nations have also been negotiating in recent months on sharing the costs of keeping American troops here to renew their five-year Special Measure Agreement (SMA) that will expire at the end of this year.
The SMA was first signed in 1991, laying the legal ground for South Korea to help finance the defense activities of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK). The Seoul-Washington Mutual Defense Treaty, signed after the 1950-53 Korean War, had originally put the burden of bankrolling U.S. defense activities here on the U.S. side.
The past three rounds of the talks have so far shown that the countries are wide apart, with Seoul rebuffing Washington's call to contribute about 100 billion won (US$92.2 million) more than what Seoul is willing to pay.
Under the latest agreement renewed in 2008, South Korea paid an annual contribution of 869.5 billion won in 2013, which accounts for over 40 percent of the total costs.
The rising pressure to pay more comes as the Pentagon would have to slash its budget by about $20 billion in fiscal 2014 from a year earlier if mandatory budget cuts remain in effect.
The issue has become a much more salient concern as the Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies began to implement shutdown plans on Tuesday after Congress failed to reach a deal to fund the federal government in the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
The Seoul government, which is seeking Washington's acceptance of its OPCON postponement proposal, is cautious over the U.S. demand to raise its financial contribution.
"I believe the South Korea-U.S. alliance has effectively countered North Korean provocations and contributed to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula in the last 60 years. We will pay our share to allow U.S. troops to stably conduct their mission here and maintain vigilant joint combat capabilities," Kim said, without elaborating on the ongoing negotiations.
During his tour to the heavily guarded Demilitarized Zone Monday, Hagel tried to assure the Asian ally of the strategic importance in the Asia-Pacific region, saying the Pentagon has no plans to reduce its 28,500-member force in the South despite budget constraints.
"The U.S. has interests all over the world ... and we will not retreat from those interests. I have also said missions are being affected by actions such as the government shut-down and sequestration. We will adjust and are adjusting now and we have to adjust," Hagel said.
"But our forces, our interest and our commitment to our allies will remain the same. The rebalancing to the Asia Pacific, this is our priority. We will always adjust resources to match our priorities, and we will continue to do that."