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Japan-South Korea rift

Japan and South Korea remain apart over intel-sharing pact

South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono met on Sunday in Bangkok and released a joint statement following the meeting.   © Kyodo

BANGKOK (Kyodo) --The defense ministers of Japan and South Korea on Sunday held their first official talks in more than a year, but no tangible progress was made over a bilateral military intelligence-sharing pact set to expire next weekend.

Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono urged his South Korean counterpart Jeong Kyeong Doo to reconsider Seoul's decision to terminate the three-year-old General Security of Military Information Agreement.

"We want to call on (South Korea) to act sensibly," Kono said at the meeting in Bangkok, given that not only the security situation in the region but also the relationship between defense authorities of the two Asian neighbors has been "very severe."

But Jeong repeated South Korea's position on the intelligence-sharing pact, also known as GSOMIA, which is to expire on Saturday, according to Japanese officials.

The unchanged stance came to light despite U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper's renewed assertion on Sunday that facilitating exchanges of information between its allies is important.

Jeong told reporters after the meeting with Kono that he called for a diplomatic solution, saying the decision not to renew the accord resulted from Japan's tightening of export controls on some South Korea-bound products for national security reasons.

In the first meeting between the two neighbors' defense chiefs since October last year, Kono and Jeong, nevertheless, agreed that they should maintain communication to deal with North Korea-related issues, according to the officials.

Reached in 2016, the accord is mainly aimed at countering the North Korean nuclear and missile threat and facilitating three-way defense cooperation with the United States.

Japan has repeatedly asked South Korea to renew the accord, as Tokyo is also concerned about a possible weakening of the trilateral security cooperation.

But Seoul insists it will only reconsider its August decision to scrap the agreement if Tokyo first reverses its move earlier this year to tighten controls on exports of some materials needed by South Korean manufacturers of semiconductors and display panels.

A meeting among Kono, Jeong and Esper also took place on Sunday in Bangkok on the sidelines of the annual ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting-Plus, according to Japanese officials.

Esper said sharing information among the United States, Japan and South Korea is vital, while Kono said it is necessary to continue defense cooperation among the three allies to address security challenges.

Jeong, however, said their three-way cooperation is facing "large and small difficulties" due to the standoff between South Korea and Japan.

Yet the three ministers released a joint statement following the meeting, with a strong focus on North Korea, in which they pledged to "closely cooperate to support diplomatic efforts to establish complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula."

It said they will "stay vigilant" on North Korea following its recent series of ballistic missile launches and agreed to step up their cooperation, "including information sharing, high-level policy consultation, and combined exercises."

Esper visited South Korea before traveling to the Thai capital in an attempt to persuade Seoul to renew the intelligence-sharing pact.

But South Korean President Moon Jae In told Esper on Friday that it is "difficult" for Seoul to share military intelligence with Japan, while promising to make continued efforts toward security cooperation among the three countries.

Japan-South Korea ties, which have long been haunted by wartime history, sank to their lowest level in years in October last year when South Korea's top court ordered a Japanese steelmaker to pay compensation for forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Japanese and South Korean defense authorities severely deteriorated last December when the South Korean navy allegedly locked its fire-control radar on a Japanese Self-Defense Forces patrol plane.

Before returning to Japan on Tuesday, Kono plans to also meet bilaterally with Esper and defense ministers from other countries.

The ADMM-Plus meeting involves the defense chiefs from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its eight regional partners -- Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States.

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