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International relations

Moon and Esper agree on importance of Seoul-Tokyo intel-sharing pact

SEOUL (Kyodo) -- Visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and South Korean President Moon Jae In agreed Friday on the importance of a military intelligence-sharing pact between Japan and South Korea that is soon coming up for extension.

An official at the presidential office told reporters that Esper and Moon "agreed that the GSOMIA issue should be settled amicably," adding that there was no further detailed discussion on it.

Before arriving Thursday for a two-day visit, Esper indicated that he would urge the continuation of the General Security of Military Information Agreement.

Seoul has recently suggested it may pull out of the pact in response to Tokyo's tightening of export controls on some materials crucial to the South Korean technology industry.

The pact, signed in November 2016, allows the neighbors to share sensitive information regarding North Korea, which has launched what are believed to be short-range ballistic missiles four times in less than two weeks. A deadline to decide whether to renew it for another year comes later this month.

The official also said that Moon and Esper were on the same page on the importance of trilateral cooperation among the United States, South Korea and Japan.

National security adviser Chung Eui Yong was present at the meeting at the presidential office.

Earlier in the day, Esper held talks in Seoul with his South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong Doo over security cooperation involving the two defense allies and Japan.

Jeong, at the outset of the meeting, criticized Japan's tighter export controls against South Korea, saying the Japanese action "is having a negative influence on security cooperation" among South Korea, the United States and Japan.

Esper, for his part, reaffirmed the U.S. security alliance with South Korea as "ironclad" and vowed to continue coordination on North Korea affairs.

Esper's visit to South Korea comes as the United States' two close allies in East Asia bicker over diplomatic and trade issues, sending Japan-South Korea ties to their lowest point in years.

It also comes as the North has repeatedly fired short-range ballistic missiles in recent weeks as a warning against an ongoing joint military exercise between the United States and South Korea.

In the talks, Esper, who became the Pentagon chief in July, also expressed U.S. readiness to continue diplomatic engagement with North Korea.

"As President (Donald) Trump made clear, the U.S. is willing to engage diplomatically with North Korea to make progress on all commitments made in the Singapore joint statement to achieve those ends," said Esper, who is on his first overseas trip as the top Pentagon official.

In a joint statement signed at the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit in June 2018 in Singapore, Trump promised to provide security guarantees to Pyongyang, while North Korean leader Kim Jong Un committed to the "complete" denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Denuclearization talks between the two countries that ensued have stalemated, however. Even though the two leaders agreed last June to resume the talks within weeks, they have yet to be realized.

On Monday, South Korea and the United States began a scaled-back combined command post exercise, despite warnings from North Korea, which has long criticized U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises as a rehearsal for an invasion.

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