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US reels in S. Korea to push back against N. Korea, China

South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook (right) and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pose for a photo before talks at the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul, March 17, 2021. (Yonhap)
South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook (right) and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pose for a photo before talks at the Ministry of National Defense in Seoul, March 17, 2021. (Yonhap)
The alliance between the US and South Korea is key to addressing North Korea and a rising China, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Wednesday at his first in-person talks with South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook in Seoul.

“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,” Austin said, referring to Seoul’s official name, Republic of Korea. DPRK is Pyongyang’s official name.

Austin – who is visiting Seoul with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a two-day trip after flying to Japan, another key Asian ally – is seen as trying to reinforce alliances in the region to balance an increasingly assertive China. Austin called specifically for trilateral cooperation between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.

Defense Minister Suh highlighted bolstering deterrence against the North and maintaining combat readiness of the joints forces between Seoul and Washington. The South hosts 28,500 US troops here and hold joint drills with the US regularly.

The two defense chiefs also discussed the international order which they agreed should be anchored by the rule of law. Austin called Seoul a critical partner in upholding the order, and providing security and stability in the Indo-Pacific region, where Washington is keen on building a democratic coalition against Beijing

Suh related to the rules-based international order, saying Korea has been pursuing its own initiative to realize it, a senior Defense Ministry official said, adding the initiative Suh referred to was the Moon government’s New Southern Policy, which aims to expand Korea’s ties with Southeast Asia.

Suh and Austin addressed the annual joint drills taking place here this week as well. The drills provide opportunities for Seoul to test its readiness to retake the wartime operational command from Washington, but they have differences over when the takeover should happen. Korea wants an early transfer.

The joint drills were successful, a senior Defense Ministry official said quoting Austin as saying. He thanked Suh for his leadership. The following day, Austin and Blinken will meet with South Korean defense and foreign ministers together and initial the cost-sharing agreement for hosting US troops here. Austin flies to India on Friday.

By Choi Si-young (siyoungchoi@heraldcorp.com)
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