(ATTN: ADDS more details in paras 8, 13-14, 18-19, 21-23)
By Oh Seok-min
SEOUL, Nov. 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States will hold their annual defense ministers' talks in Seoul next week, the defense ministry said Friday, just a week before the expiration of an intelligence-sharing pact between Seoul and Tokyo.
Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will hold the 51st Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) next Friday in Seoul to "have in-depth discussions into diverse pending security issues," the ministry said.
Key agenda items include the security situation on the Korean Peninsula, the conditions-based transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON) of South Korean forces from Washington to Seoul, and the relocation and return of U.S. military bases, the ministry said in a release.
Esper is scheduled to arrive in South Korea on Thursday, officials said.
The meeting will take place amid stepped-up pressure by the U.S. on South Korea to reconsider its decision to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan, which is to expire on Nov. 23.
The military information-sharing pact is seen as a key mechanism of trilateral cooperation between the U.S. and its two Asian allies in the face of security threats posed by North Korea and an assertive China that has deepened defense ties with Russia.
Announcing Esper's travel to South Korea, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said he can "practically guarantee" the topic will be part of Esper's meeting with Jeong next week.
The Seoul ministry also hinted that the issue will be discussed during the meeting by saying that the two sides will exchange opinions about "continuing security cooperation among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan" in the face of North Korean threats.
Despite U.S. opposition, South Korea announced its decision not to renew the bilateral pact after Japan imposed fresh export curbs against Seoul seen as political retaliation for last year's Korean Supreme Court rulings that ordered Japanese firms to compensate victims of wartime forced labor.
South Korea has since maintained its position that any reconsideration would be possible only when Japan first changes its course.
On Monday, minister Jeong told parliament, "I think such tools (like GSOMIA) should be maintained if they would do good to our security interests even a little bit."
But he pointed out that such pending issues as exports restrictions "should be resolved at the same time."
Following the meeting in Seoul, the two ministers are reportedly scheduled to fly to Bangkok to attend the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), where their Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, also will participate.
Japanese media have reported that Seoul and Tokyo are arranging a bilateral defense meeting, and three-way talks involving Jeong, Esper and Kono are also expected to take place.
Also on the table will be the OPCON transfer from Washington to Seoul that the allies have been pushing for.
In order to verify whether Seoul is on course to meet conditions for the transition, the two sides conducted the initial operational capability (IOC) test during their combined exercise in August. The results of the test will be reported to the ministers during next week's meeting for assessment, according to the ministry.
The conditions for the transition are South Korea's capability to lead the allies' combined defense mechanism, its capacity for initial responses to the North's nuclear and missile threats and a stable security environment on the peninsula and in the region.
"The two sides are to discuss when to conduct a full operational capability (FOC) test and schedule for its preparation," the ministry said in a release.
As for U.S. military base sites in South Korea, the ministry said the allies will "discuss ways of cooperation for their timely return (to our side)."
In August, the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae said it will seek the prompt return of 26 American military bases to its control, and U.S. Forces Korea said that some of the bases have already been vacated and that it remains committed to returning installations as expeditiously as possible.
During the talks, Jeong and Esper will also review results of their joint research to map out a vision for how to move defense-sector cooperation further forward in the future, according to the ministry.
Upon the agreement last year by defense ministers of the two countries, the two sides have carried out research together on the future alliance vision.
Senior officials from the two countries will attend the meeting, including Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman Gen. Park Han-ki; Gen. Choi Byung-hyuk, the deputy commander of the South Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command; America's JCS Commander Gen. Mark Milley; U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Robert Abrams; U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Commander Adm. Phil Davidson; U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris; and Marc Knapper, deputy assistant secretary for Korea and Japan.