US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken held talks with their respective counterparts in Seoul on Wednesday and reaffirmed their alliance as a bulwark against unprecedented challenges posed by Beijing and Pyongyang.
The pair arrived in Seoul after a two-day visit in Tokyo, in the first overseas trip by top members of President Joe Biden’s cabinet since his inauguration in January.
The high-profile trip in the region is seen as Washington’s apparent attempt to solidify key Asian alliances against China’s growing assertiveness and the nuclear-armed North Korea.
Austin met with South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook at the Defense Ministry in the afternoon, emphasizing the importance of the 70-year-old alliance given the “unprecedented challenges” posed by North Korea and China.
“Our commitment to the US-ROK alliance, which has been steadfast for 70 years remains ironclad,” Austin said at the start of the meeting, stressing the alliance is a “linchpin” of the peace, security and prosperity for Northeast Asia and the free, open-Indo Pacific region.
The ROK refers to South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
“Given the unprecedented challenges posed by both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and China, the US-ROK alliance has never been more important,” the Pentagon chief said, adding that military readiness is a top priority.
“Over the course of developing the alliance, maintaining a strong deterrence against North Korea and combined defense posture is of utmost importance,” Suh said.
The two reaffirmed their commitment to a complete denuclearization and for permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.
The military chiefs also vowed to continue efforts toward the transfer of wartime operational control of South Korean troops from Washington to Seoul. Both sides have agreed on a conditions-based transition, rather than a time-based one, though President Moon Jae-in has expressed hopes to regain military control before his term ends in May 2022.
Later in the day, Blinken and South Korean Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong held talks at the Foreign Ministry.
During the meeting, Blinken condemned human rights abuses in North Korea, China’s use of “coercion and aggression” on the international stage, and Myanmar’s military for repressing peaceful protesters.
“The authoritarian regime in North Korea continues to commit systemic and widespread abuses against its own people,” Blinken said. “We must stand for fundamental rights and freedoms and against those who oppress it.”
He also slammed China’s use of coercion and aggression to “systematically erode the economy in Hong Kong, undercut democracy in Taiwan, abuse human rights in Tibet and asserting claims in the South China Sea that violate human rights law,” echoing a similar remark he delivered in Tokyo.
In dealing with North Korea’s nuclear missiles and ballistic missiles program, Blinken stressed that the US will work together with South Korea and other allies and partners, including Japan, for the regime’s denuclearization.
Chung emphasized that the alliance is the foundation of Seoul’s diplomacy and expressed hopes for a summit between Biden and Moon at an early date.
On Thursday, Blinken and Austin are to meet with their counterparts together for the so-called “two-plus-two” dialogue with the foreign and defense ministers, with an emphasis on the bilateral alliance and countering regional challenges.
In the afternoon, the two secretaries will pay a courtesy call on President Moon Jae-in at Cheong Wa Dae. They will also hold separate meetings with the president’s top security adviser Suh Hoon.
By Ahn Sung-mi (email@example.com