WASHINGTON — To honor the 70th year anniversary of the Korean war, Republic of Korea’s Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo visited the Korean War memorial on the National Mall. He then crossed the river to talk business at the Pentagon.
Both visits were bleak.
The Korean War memorial is one of the most haunting in the city, capturing the uncertainty and grimness of that so-called police action — a conflict that bound together Washington and Seoul into an unexpected and, ultimately pivotal alliance that stopped communism and let democracy flourish in the region.
Today, that bond both sides have for decades boasted as “iron-clad” is being unraveled from within and without.
The threat from without is the coronavirus, which has forced the U.S. and South Korean militaries to curtail military exercises. It has also moved into quarantine roughly 7,000 South Korea military personnel and put U.S. forces on restrictive movement. There are 13 confirmed cases of coronavirus among South Korean military personal.
Officials in both nations are at a loss as to how it will impact the readiness of the militaries, already on alert because of rising tensions in North Korea.
Both Jeong Kyeong-doo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper ignored reporter questions Monday on how bad the virus is in North Korea — and whether Chinese students and others with the virus have targeted South Korea.
Esper told reporters that he is confident the U.S. and South Korea will “remain fully ready to deal with any threats that we might face together.”
The threat from within is the U.S. generated dispute centered on the demand for a 400 percent increase in the amount of the payment South Korea gives the U.S. to cover cost of garrisoning roughly 28,000 troops on the peninsula. South Korea now pays under $1 billion and President Trump wants around $4 billion.
Seoul increased the payment by 8 percent last year but Esper was firm that Washington wants a higher boost. Funds to pay for 7,000 South Korean workers at U.S. military installations runs out on March 31.
The dispute comes with a swirl of other elements. The Pentagon has been saying that South Korea is the “lynchpin” of its Indo-Pacific strategy and that Seoul should be prepared to help elsewhere in the region, such as against China This comes are President Trump often talks about reducing the U.S. troop force side in South Korea. That has prompted Seoil to renew a push for the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) from the United States back to South Korea.
Both defense leaders used some standard diplomatic euphemisms when pressed on the future of the alliance: robust, reaffirmed, candid, unwavering and of course ironclad.
Yet 70 years later, still no peace.