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Japan-South Korea rift

US security adviser Bolton urges South Korea to mend ties with Japan

In Seoul, Trump aide calls for cooperation as regional tensions rise

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and South Korean National Security Office Director Chung Eui-yong meet in Seoul on July 24. (Photo courtesy of South Korean Office of the President)

SEOUL -- U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton pushed South Korea Wednesday to tamp down its feud with Japan, encouraging Washington's two top allies in the region to work together amid growing security concerns.

Bolton, known for his hawkish stance on North Korea and the Middle East, met with South Korean counterpart Chung Eui-yong for about two and a half hours in Seoul. They agreed to maintain close military cooperation.

Bolton's visit came a day after Russia and China military violated airspace over a chain of small islands claimed by both South Korea and Japan. The flyover of the islands, called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Seoul, is believed to have been an attempt to test the security partnership between South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, which has faced setbacks in recent years.

The American official also called on South Korea to join a U.S.-led coalition to protect ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial oil transport waterway near Iran.

Bolton, who visited Japan before South Korea, is eager to ensure stability in East Asia, particularly near the Korean Peninsula. "Looking forward to productive meetings with the leadership of our important ally and partner so vital to Indo-Pacific security and prosperity," he tweeted after arriving in Seoul.

Mindful of its relations with China, South Korea has been hesitant to embrace the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" strategy -- the U.S. and Japan's answer to Beijing's Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative. Bolton stressed that the U.S. alliance with South Korea plays a crucial role in the peace and stability of the region beyond the peninsula.

Bolton also urged South Korea to work on its deteriorating ties with Japan, including in meetings with other top officials. He and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha agreed that containing the situation and seeking a diplomatic solution would benefit all parties involved.

With South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, they affirmed that Seoul will continue to cooperate with Tokyo on security issues. Some in South Korea are pushing to scrap a bilateral intelligence-sharing pact with Japan in response to export curbs placed on key chipmaking materials by Tokyo.

The talks follow an incident on Tuesday, in which Russian and Chinese military aircraft entered South Korea's air defense identification zone, while a Russian jet flew through Takeshima's airspace. South Korean forces responded by firing hundreds of warning shots.

This only served to highlight the conflicting claims over the islands. Eighteen South Korean jets and about 10 from Japan's Self-Defense Forces were deployed to the area during the incident, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported.

Japan, which considers the South Korean-controlled islands as its own, maintains that the South should not have responded to the Russian plane. Meanwhile, a South Korean Defense Ministry spokesperson said Wednesday that "Japan's views are completely irrelevant."

Some experts believe China and Russia took advantage of this rift to put their security partnership to the test, the South's JoongAng Ilbo reported.

The South Korean government attempted to control the narrative of the incident Wednesday, saying that according to Moscow's account, the Russian aircraft accidentally entered the islands' airspace because of a system malfunction. But Russia rejected the statement, saying it did not violate South Korean airspace and that South Korea had endangered Russian planes.

China's Defense Ministry said Wednesday that it conducted its first joint patrol with Russia over international waters in the East China Sea, and that the action was not aimed at any third country.

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