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story.lead_photo.caption South Korean President Moon Jae-in (right) greets U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper before a meeting Friday at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.

SEOUL, South Korea -- The United States will consider changing plans to conduct joint military exercises with longtime ally South Korea if that helps support diplomatic efforts to restart a dialogue with North Korea, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Friday.

But Esper stopped short of canceling a planned joint air drill, as North Korea has demanded.

Exercises are meant to ensure the readiness of U.S. and South Korean forces "to deter, and if necessary, defeat our adversaries," Esper said, speaking alongside South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo after a meeting in Seoul.

"The purpose of our armed forces and our exercises is not only to buttress our diplomacy, but to also enable and empower it," he said. "So we always have to remain flexible in terms of how we support our diplomats to ensure that we do not close any doors that may allow forward progress on the diplomatic front."

Esper also pressed President Donald Trump's case that South Korea must pay a bigger share of the cost of having U.S. troops on its soil.

"This is a very strong alliance we have, but Korea is a wealthy country and could and should pay more to help offset the cost of defense," Esper said during Friday's news conference.

Esper said that while South Korea has provided "a fair amount of support in the past," it is important to point out that "most of that money stays here in this country -- easily over 90% of that money stays here in Korea, it does not go to the United States."

The amount Korea pays for the presence of about 28,000 U.S. troops has varied over the years. This year it is nearly $1 billion.

South Korean news reports have said the Trump administration is demanding a five-fold increase in South Korean contributions, to about $4.7 billion for 2020, although Jeong declined to confirm the figure. He said his country was prepared to pay a "fair and reasonable" amount.

At Friday's news conference, Esper said American demands for a more favorable sharing of defense costs apply not only to South Korea but also to allies and partners across the globe. Trump has long accused American allies in Europe and Asia of being freeloaders and questioned why the U.S. is still helping to defend them.

Negotiations with Seoul over cost-sharing for 2020 is one of several major irritants in the alliance, which dates to the 1950-53 Korean War when the U.S. and other nations intervened after North Korea invaded the South.

Esper's comments on asking more of South Korea and on the military exercises were greeted cautiously by North Korea, which demanded a total cancellation of the upcoming exercise.

"I would like to believe that the remark of the U.S. Secretary of Defense reflected the intention of President Trump, and appreciate it as part of positive efforts of the U.S. side to preserve the motive force of the DPRK-U.S. negotiations," Kim Yong Chol, a senior North Korean official, said in a statement, referring to the country's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The North Korean regime also this week attacked one of Trump's potential 2020 election opponents, calling former Vice President Joe Biden a "rabid dog" that "must be beaten to death with a stick."

The commentary by Pyongyang's official Korean Central News Agency said the U.S. presidential hopeful "reeled off a string of rubbish against the dignity" of the North's supreme leadership, an act it said deserves "merciless punishment."

It referred to him only with his surname and as vice president under former President Barack Obama, and in some versions spelled his name as "Baiden."

The North correctly spelled Biden's name in May when it labeled him a "fool of low IQ" after he called North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a tyrant during a speech.

North Korea often insults foreign leaders and politicians over what it sees as slanderous remarks toward its leadership or hostile policies against its government. It has attacked Obama, former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and Trump, whom the regime famously called a "dotard" before Trump made diplomatic overtures to Kim last year.

"Rabid dogs like Baiden can hurt lots of people if they are allowed to run about," said the North Korean statement. "They must be beaten to death with a stick, before it is too late."

It wasn't immediately clear which of Biden's comments provoked North Korea's anger. The Democrat has accused Trump of cozying up to "dictators and tyrants" and has been highly critical of his summitry with Kim, calling the meetings "three made-for-TV summits."

South Korea's Yonhap News Agency speculated that North Korea, by insulting Biden, was trying to appeal to Trump, who has continued to describe his personal relationship with Kim as good despite a stalemate in nuclear negotiations over disagreements in exchanging sanctions relief and disarmament steps.

North Korea has given the United States until the end of the year to come up with a new approach to denuclearization talks and threatened this week to reverse an earlier decision to end nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

It says it feels "betrayed" because Trump did not follow through on a promise to end joint exercises with South Korea in return for a halt to Pyongyang's long-range weapons tests. The United States says North Korea has not made meaningful steps to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and nothing to justify offering the sanctions relief the Kim regime wants.

Information for this article was contributed by Simon Denyer and Min Joo Kim of The Washington Post; and by Robert Burns, Kim Tong-hyung and Bill Barrow of The Associated Press.

A Section on 11/16/2019

Print Headline: U.S. weighs talks, S. Korea drills

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