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Japan-South Korea rift

11-minute chat brings Moon and Abe no closer as intel deadline looms

Two leaders speak for first time in 13 months as defense cooperation begins to fray

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ahead of the ASEAN+3 Summit.   © AP

TOKYO -- The Japanese government said it was a 10-minute conversation. The South Koreans said it was 11. Either way, the first conversation between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in 13 months did little to bring the two sides closer.

The brief talks took place in Bangkok against an increasingly precarious diplomatic backdrop. A key intelligence-sharing pact between Japan and South Korea is set to expire on Nov. 22 and the countries' defense cooperation over North Korean missile launches is already showing signs of crumbling.

The conversation happened in a "friendly and sincere atmosphere," a spokesperson for South Korea's presidential Blue House said.

The Japanese side announced that the conversation lasted 10 minutes as it is customary to round such numbers. But South Korea offered the precise number of 11 minutes, reflecting the plight Moon finds himself in.

The two leaders chose to sit down for the conversation to avoid being seen as having a casual exchange. An 11-minute conversation is long enough not to be seen as small talk but too short for a formal meeting. Moon's government needed to show the public that the two sides did have a meaningful conversation but he did not cede any ground to Japan. 

But as the two men engage in a diplomatic dance, Pyongyang appears to be emboldened by the heightened tensions between Tokyo and Seoul. 

North Korea has conducted ballistic missile tests on four separate occasions since Seoul said in August it would leave the General Security of Military Information Agreement, which has allowed Japan and South Korea to communicate quickly and effectively regarding Pyongyang's drills.

Cracks are already emerging even though the framework is not set to end for a few more weeks. After the Oct. 2 launch, Japan initially announced that the North launched two missiles. It later revised the number to one. South Korea said it believed there was one missile all along and asked Japan to share intelligence under the GSOMIA.

Japan also broke tradition regarding the pact when it announced details of an Aug. 24 test before South Korea.

Cooperation between South Korea, which is closer to the launch sites, and Japan, which is closer to the landing sites, is a vital part of analyzing the type of missile fired by North Korea and its flight path. South Korea's decision to end the GSOMIA "completely misjudges the region's security landscape and is extremely disappointing," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday.

The U.S. has expressed its concern over how the cooling Japan-South Korea ties will affect the region's security. With Washington urging Seoul to change its mind on the agreement, some in the South Korean government are considering reinstating the deal if Japan scraps its export restrictions on chipmaking materials.

But what is needed is for the two sides to make progress on issues at the heart of their current feud, such as court rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate South Koreans forced to work for them during World War II, or Japan's export restrictions on chip-related materials. "It's difficult to say too much about a 10-minute conversation," Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said Tuesday.

Moon had proposed holding a high-level dialogue to bridge the bilateral rift. But Motegi said the content of the conversation is more important than the rank of officials involved, and urged South Korea to take concrete action.

The countries are also looking to hold a defense ministers' meeting this month on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Thailand. "I hope to meet soon with my South Korean counterpart," Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono told reporters Tuesday. The foreign ministers could meet at a Group of 20 gathering later this month as well.

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