(ATTN: UPDATES with more remarks by Esper, details in paras 7, 9-14)
By Lee Haye-ah
WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 (Yonhap) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday he believes the United States will be "tested soon" on bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table to discuss its nuclear weapons program.
Esper, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the U.S. is trying hard to resume the negotiations because the threat of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs can only be resolved through a diplomatic agreement.
"War on the peninsula would be horrible. Nobody wants to see that," he said at the council, in live online footage. "I think we're going to be tested here soon -- test in the sense of this next stage, trying to get them back to the negotiating table, and hopefully not back on the other path."
Esper made the comments as he recalled the high tensions between Washington and Pyongyang when he took office as secretary of the Army in the fall of 2017, saying, "We were on the path toward conflict, because we were preparing for it."
Tensions between the sides have renewed in recent weeks as North Korea has ramped up pressure on the U.S. to come up with a solution to their stalled negotiations before the end of the year.
The North has strongly suggested it will resume nuclear or long-range missile tests if the U.S. fails to meet that deadline.
"They already have the nuclear weapons, and now they're trying to develop an (intercontinental ballistic missile), and that becomes a direct threat to our homeland," Esper said, describing North Korea as a "rogue state," along with Iran.
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have had three meetings since June 2018 to try to reach a deal, but the negotiations have stalled due to wide gaps over how to match the North's denuclearization steps with U.S. concessions, including sanctions relief and security guarantees.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun, Washington's point man on negotiations with Pyongyang, will travel to Seoul on Sunday for a three-day visit and meet with South Korean officials to discuss the way forward, according to the South's foreign ministry.
There is speculation Biegun could visit the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom during his stay to meet with the North Koreans.
On the South Korea-U.S. alliance, Esper said he is committed to the relationship but reiterated that it's not too much to ask allies to increase their contribution to shared defense costs.
"There can't be any free riders. There can't be any discount plans," he said. "We're all in this together. If we are going to meet the challenges of our day in terms of great power competition, whether it's Russia, or more importantly, China, we have to work together. We all have to contribute together to make sure that we are prepared, if the worst comes to worst, to defend our way of life."
Washington is reportedly demanding a fivefold increase to nearly US$5 billion in Seoul's contribution to the upkeep of 28,500 American troops stationed in South Korea.
The negotiations for the allies' cost-sharing agreement for next year are scheduled to resume for a fifth round in Seoul next week.