SEOUL — Helping defend South Korea would be easier if the U.S. entered into a free trade agreement for military equipment with the South, according to a former commander of U.S. Forces Korea.

In a column he co-authored for the Defense News, retired Gen. Walter Sharp wrote, “When South Korean leaders want to buy military equipment from the U.S. to bolster their capabilities, the U.S. government makes it exceedingly hard for them to obtain much-needed top-of-the-line weapons.

“If the U.S. defense policy is not changed, countries like South Korea will procure what they need elsewhere, hurting U.S. employment and driving up the unit costs the Pentagon pays for systems it buys for itself,” the column said.

Sharp, who left in July after serving as USFK’s commander for three years, is now a senior adviser for Monitor National Security, a Newport Beach, Calif.-based defense strategy consulting firm. He co-wrote the column with John Prior, an associate partner with Monitor National Security.

The U.S. and South Korean governments last year approved a free-trade agreement between the two countries, but Sharp and Prior suggest it did not go far enough, especially given the recently announced cuts in the Pentagon’s budget and America’s new defensive focus on the Pacific.

“The challenges on the horizon are many,” the column said. “The recent upheaval in North Korea’s leadership, Pyongyang’s persistent development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and the continuing growth of Chinese power are just a few examples.”

Sharp and Prior pointed out that South Korea has sent troops to support U.S. and U.N. peacekeeping efforts around the world, including Afghanistan and Iraq, “while still facing an increasingly belligerent foe to its north.”

In addition, the South is preparing for 2015 when it is scheduled to assume operational control from the U.S., taking the lead in the event of a war with North Korea.

Despite all that and the newly approved free-trade agreement, they wrote, “South Korea leaders must overcome many procedural, congressional and price-increase challenges not faced by other allies in their attempt to buy U.S. high technology systems, such as the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle.

“In addition to selling more to the South Koreans,” the column argued, “the U.S. should pursue buying more from them, or at least let them compete more actively in potential arms sales to the U.S.”

“Providing for American security at a time of dramatically shrinking defense budgets, rising threats from rogue nations like North Korea and Iran, and continuing challenges from a growing superpower like China will be hard enough,” the Defense News column said.

“We shouldn’t make it more difficult for our allies, who have demonstrated a willingness and capability, to join us in the fight.”

Gen. James Thurman, USFK’s current commander, was unavailable Tuesday to comment on Sharp’s proposal, according to a spokeswoman.

Representatives of South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense and Defense Acquisition Program Administration declined to comment on the column, saying it was just the former commander’s “personal opinion.”

Stars and Stripes’ Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.

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