S. Korea-U.S. alliance ‘nearly at its best’: outgoing defense chief

SEOUL-- The military alliance between South Korea and the United States has reached "nearly its best level" over the recent years, outgoing Defense Minister Suh Wook said Monday, rejecting claims it has waned due to the Moon Jae-in administration's drive for peace with North Korea.

In an exclusive interview with Yonhap News Agency, Suh pointed to the close-knit cooperation he has maintained with his counterpart, Lloyd Austin, and other U.S. defense officials as proof that the alliance remains robust at least from a military perspective.

Concerns have persisted about a possible weakening of the alliance as Seoul and Washington have scaled down their major regular military exercises to help facilitate diplomacy with the recalcitrant regime.

"I have long dealt with the alliance, and it has reached nearly its best level," Suh said, noting that even the alliance partnership is not "100" percent free from small disagreements.

The interview took place on the eve of the inauguration of President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, who has vowed to cement the alliance and "normalize" the allies' combined exercises.

Suh rejected suggestions that under the Moon administration, the allies have suspended most of their major combined exercises.

"The number of small-scale training events below regiment levels has rather increased," he said.

Noting a shift in the security situation on the Korean Peninsula, Suh said it is up to the next government to determine what to do with the allied exercises.

He was referring to the North's suspension in March of a self-imposed moratorium on its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests, once seen as a major feat of Moon's dovish approach to the North.

Suh also cited the possibility of the North continuing its provocative mode in the wake of its end to the moratorium.

"North Korea appears to be following its own timetable (on its weapons development) irrespective of the South's political calendar," the minister said. "But the North might take into account the presidential inauguration here and Biden's planned visit to Seoul."

U.S. President Joe Biden is scheduled to arrive in Seoul on May 20, the eve of the leaders' first in-person summit.

Suh, who took office as the defense minister in September 2020, will be replaced by his successor, Lee Jong-sup, a retired three-star Army general. The National Assembly adopted a confirmation hearing report on Lee earlier in the day.

Source: Yonhap News Agency