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(4th LD) S. Korean, Japanese defense chiefs fail to narrow differences on GSOMIA

18:45 November 17, 2019

(ATTN: ADDS results of three-way meeting, more details in paras 21-24)
By Oh Seok-min

BANGKOK, Nov. 17 (Yonhap) -- The defense chiefs of South Korea and Japan held tense one-on-one talks in Thailand on Sunday, just days before the planned expiry of their intelligence-sharing pact, but no breakthrough was made.

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said after the meeting with his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, that the two sides stuck to their existing positions on the issue of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) set to expire Saturday.

"(The two sides) exchanged original stances," Jeong told reporters after having 40-minute talks with Kono in the Thai capital of Bangkok on the sidelines of the 6th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus).

"As I repeat, our government was to renew the pact until June. Following Japan's export curbs (on South Korea) saying their security trust was hurt, however, we were forced to have decided to terminate GSOMIA," Jeong said.

Stressing that there seems to exist more room to resolve the issue in the diplomatic realm than in terms of defense, Jeong stated that he called on Kono to make efforts to resolve the issue diplomatically.

Sharing the need for the bilateral security cooperation, as well as trilateral coordination involving the United States, the two ministers agreed to work closer to strengthen their defense ties, Jeong added.

Noting what he said was the "very difficult" security situation in Northeast Asia following North Korea's missiles tests, among others, Kono told reporters after the meeting that he asked for South Korea's "wide response regarding GSOMIA."

When entering the meeting venue, a grim-faced Kono refused to answer reporters' questions about any new suggestions from the Japanese side and if he was optimistic about the fate of the agreement.

South Korea's Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo (R) and his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, sit down to hold bilateral talks in Bangkok on Nov. 17, 2019. (Yonhap)

The termination decision was followed by Japan's export curbs on Seoul, citing security concerns, which is seen as political retaliation for last year's Korean Supreme Court rulings against Japanese firms over wartime forced labor.

Japan wants to maintain the pact, and the U.S. has also called for its renewal. But South Korea has maintained the stance that any reconsideration would only be possible if Japan first changes its course.

As the deadline draws near, Sunday's meetings could practically be the last chance for South Korea and Japan to seek a breakthrough regarding the issue.

Japan, however, has not showed signs of retracting its export restrictions against the South. According to Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun on Sunday, Japan has notified the U.S. of its decision not to accede to South Korea's demand.

Under the circumstances, what role the U.S. can play also draws attention.

Later in the day, Jeong and Kono joined U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper for trilateral talks and discussed ways to deepen the three-way security ties.

"It is important that we all work together closely to achieve our shared goal. This means looking beyond and overcoming bilateral issues that harm our efforts and play into the hands of Pyongyang and Beijing," Esper said during his opening remarks, adding, "As such, we also talk about the importance of information sharing between allies."

During a joint press conference with Jeong before the trilateral meeting, Esper also reiterated his calls on the both sides to strive for the renewal of the pact.

"GSOMIA is very important to ensure timely and effective decision making in the air of crisis, in a time of crisis," Esper said, calling on Seoul and Tokyo "to work together to overcome their differences."

Expressing "the deepest regrets" at North Korea's successive missile launches this year, Kono also called for promoting trilateral defense cooperation, but he fell short of putting forth any measures to reverse the situation.

North Korea has carried out a total of 12 rounds of major weapons tests this year, including new types of short-range ballistic missiles and a submarine-launched ballistic missile.

"It is regretful that security cooperation between the two friendly countries of South Korea and Japan faces huddles, both small and big, over historic, political and economic issues," Jeong said, while voicing hope "to maintain momentum for trilateral security cooperation."

In a statement following the meeting, the South Korean defense ministry said the three sides agreed to boost trilateral security ties through "intelligence sharing, high-level policy discussions and combined drills."

They also vowed to work together "to support diplomatic efforts for the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the achievement of a lasting peace," it added.

Jeong last met his Japanese counterpart in Singapore in June, and the trilateral meeting among the top defense officials from the three countries was also held on the same occasion.

On Sunday, the South Korean defense minister also held bilateral talks with his counterparts from China, New Zealand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand and discussed ways to deepen their defense ties, according to his office.

U.S. Secretary of Defense (C) hold the hands of South Korea's Defense Minister (R) and his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, ahead of the trilateral talks in Bangkok on Nov. 17, 2019. (Yonhap)

The two-day multilateral event, set to run until Monday, brings together high-level defense officials from ASEAN countries and eight member states -- South Korea, the United States, Japan, China, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and India, according to the ministry.

During a plenary session Monday, Jeong will deliver a speech on the government's peace process involving North Korea and ask for international support for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the push to turn the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into a peace zone, the ministry said.

In his address during the U.N. General Assembly session in New York in September, President Moon Jae-in proposed turning the DMZ that separates the two Koreas into a global peace zone, saying the plan will provide an institutional and realistic guarantee of North Korea's security.

ADMM-Plus was launched in 2010 to benefit participating countries to build capacity to better address shared security challenges and promote mutual trust and confidence, according to its organizer. It had been held every two or three years. Then from last year, it became an annual event.

graceoh@yna.co.kr
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