Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his South Korean counterpart said Monday that already-curtailed joint training exercises could be cut back again or possibly postponed because of the novel coronavirus outbreak on the peninsula.
"The situation is quite serious," Esper said. One U.S. military dependent has tested positive for the Covid-19 coronavirus, and there are at least 13 confirmed cases among South Korean service members.
At a joint Pentagon press briefing with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, Esper said that Army Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), is "looking at scaling back" training exercises with Republic of Korea (ROK) forces until the coronavirus cases are contained.
Jeong said Abrams is coordinating with Gen. Park Han-ki, chairman of South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff, on how training exercises might be curtailed or rescheduled, but stressed that any changes would not affect overall readiness.
Last year, the U.S. and South Korea announced that the huge annual training exercises known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve were being canceled and would be replaced by a number of small-unit exercises in an effort to cut tensions on the peninsula.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had repeatedly claimed that Exercises Foal Eagle and Key Resolve were practice sessions for an invasion.
At the Pentagon press briefing, Esper and Jeong also appeared to remain far apart on resolving the issue of South Korea's compensation for the U.S. military presence.
The cost of keeping 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea "cannot fall disproportionately on the American taxpayer," Esper said.
Jeong countered that South Korea is prepared to increase its contribution, but only "at a reasonable and fair level."
The Special Measures Agreement on funding for the U.S. presence lapsed at the end of 2019 and, unless a new agreement is reached, both Esper and Jeong said that 9,000 civilian workers who work on U.S. bases will begin being furloughed April 1.
"We are considering a higher rate" of funding, Jeong said, but the U.S. wants more.
"We need to do our best to narrow the gap," he added.
South Korea currently funds the U.S. presence at about $900 million annually. The U.S. has suggested increasing the payment to $5 billion a year.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.