USFK commander to attend int’l security forum in Seoul as U.S. representative

SEOUL-- U.S. Forces Korea Commander Gen. Robert Abrams plans to attend an annual security forum that South Korea's defense ministry is hosting this week, officials said Tuesday.

The decision came after speculation that the U.S. may not send a senior official to the Seoul Defense Dialogue (SDD), slated for Wednesday through Friday, amid strained relations between the allies in the wake of Seoul's decision to terminate a military information-sharing pact with Japan.

According to defense ministry officials, the U.S. informed the ministry recently that Abram plans to attend several sessions, including the opening ceremony on Thursday, as a representative of the U.S.

The vice-ministerial forum is expected to bring hundreds of government officials and experts from around 50 countries as well as international organizations, including the U.N., according to the ministry.

It is not known if Abrams will hold talks with officials from other countries on the sidelines.

Despite an invitation from the ministry, the U.S. had not responded until last week.

Last year, Randall Schriver, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, attended the forum.

Some have said that the move may reflect Washington's disappointment over South Korea's decision last month to end the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) after Japan enacted export curbs on South Korea in apparent retaliation against the top court's ruling on wartime forced labor.

In response, the U.S. has repeatedly expressed disappointment and concern. The bilateral pact is seen as a rare platform to promote the trilateral defense cooperation along with Washington.

Upon learning that officials from Washington might not attend the forum, the defense ministry reportedly asked for U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris to participate, but he was not able to do so due to his schedule to speak at the upcoming Indian Ocean Conference in the Maldives.

"The schedules of the two events overlap, and Harris had planned to attend the forum in Maldives long before," an official well-versed in the issue said.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul said a senior member of the embassy will take Harris' place at the Seoul forum.

"As previously announced, Ambassador Harris is attending the Indian Ocean conference in the Maldives this week. Charge d'Affaires Robert Rapson will represent the U.S. Embassy at the opening ceremony of the Seoul Defense Dialogue," the spokesperson said in a short statement.

A defense ministry official also dismissed speculation of discord between Seoul and Washington. "Schriver and several other Washington officials working on Korean affairs visited Seoul last month when Secretary of Defense Mark Esper came here. Who will attend the forum depends on the circumstances of each year," the official said.

Japan and Russia plan to send working-level officials, and China is to send a major general in charge of a military academy, the ministry said, adding that bilateral meetings will take place with those participants on the sidelines.

This year's SDD, to be held under the theme of "Building Peace Together: Challenges and Visions," will have several sessions focusing on the peace process and arms control on the Korean Peninsula, as well as security issues in Northeast Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Middle East, according to the ministry.

On the sidelines of the forum, Seoul will have vice ministerial talks with representatives from five Central Asian countries in a multilateral format to discuss ways to enhance security cooperation and to support the government's initiative of the New Northern Policy. Talks with 10 ASEAN countries are also planned to share the assessment of their 30 years of cooperation and discuss ways to improve ties.

Separate bilateral meetings are also planned with 15 nations, including Canada, Uzbekistan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia, to explore ways to boost bilateral defense cooperation, according to the ministry.

Source: Yonhap News Agency

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