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Esper to visit S. Korea to discuss expiring intel pact with Japan

In this Aug. 28, 2019, file photo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks to reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper will leave next Wednesday for South Korea and other Asian countries to enhance defense cooperation amid the growing influence of China in the region, according to the Pentagon.

    Esper's trip to Seoul comes ahead of the expiration of a military intelligence-sharing pact between South Korea and Japan later in the month as the two countries remain at odds over wartime compensation and other issues.

    "I can practically guarantee that it will be part of our conversations when we're in Korea next week," Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Thursday, while indicating that Esper will likely urge South Korea to revisit its choice not to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA.

    "It's something that we would like to see resolved, so that all of us can focus on the biggest threats in the region, which (are) North Korea's activities and then the Chinese efforts to destabilize the region," he added.

    GSOMIA has allowed Japan and South Korea -- which have no military alliance between them but are both allies of the United States -- to directly share sensitive intelligence, such as information about North Korea's military activities related to its nuclear and missile programs.

    But South Korea said in August that it had decided to scrap the agreement, which will become invalid on Nov. 23.

    According to the U.S. Defense Department, Esper will also travel to Thailand to attend a regional defense ministers' meeting involving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He will travel to the Philippines and Vietnam as well.

    China's militarization of outposts in disputed areas of the South China Sea and "predatory" Chinese commercial and economic activities are among the shared challenges to be discussed during the meetings, Hoffman said.

    The Pentagon, meanwhile, confirmed plans for the U.S. military to hold joint flight exercises with South Korean forces, but noted a "reduced scope" as compared to previous similar drills so as not to undermine diplomatic efforts toward the denuclearization of North Korea.

    After his first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June last year, U.S. President Donald Trump announced he would suspend some joint military exercises with South Korea during Washington's negotiations with Pyongyang.

    Subsequently, the United States and South Korea suspended the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise held every August and the Vigilant Ace joint air defense drills last held in December 2017.

    On the upcoming exercises, Rear Adm. William Byrne, who attended the press briefing with Hoffman, said, "I'm not going to talk specific force numbers (or) specific airplane numbers, but it's a reduced scope from the former Vigilant Ace exercises."

    "But it meets all the requirements of the ROK Air Force, the U.S. Air Force to ensure readiness," he added, referring to South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea.

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