Amid soured bilateral ties, Japan is making final arrangements with South Korea for their defense ministers to hold talks in mid-November on the sidelines of a regional meeting in Thailand, a government source said Monday.
If realized, the meeting between Defense Minister Taro Kono and his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyeong-doo, will come ahead of the expiration of a military intelligence-sharing pact between Tokyo and Seoul on Nov. 23.
Kono is expected to demand that South Korea retract its decision not to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) during the bilateral meeting, according to the source at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo.
If the meeting, on the sidelines of the annual ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), takes place, it will be the first between defense ministers of the two countries since October last year. Kono is scheduled to visit Thailand from Saturday through Monday.
Kono has repeatedly asked South Korea to reconsider its decision to terminate the accord, saying that it will otherwise lead to a “misleading signal” to other countries in the region.
Japan is concerned about the possibility of trilateral security cooperation involving the United States being weakened after the expiration of GSOMIA, amid a recent spate of North Korean ballistic missile launches.
A meeting of the defense chiefs from Japan, South Korea and the United States is scheduled to take place in Thailand before or after ADMM-Plus, with the intelligence pact also expected to be one of the major items on the agenda, the source said.
The United States has also been stepping up pressure on South Korea to maintain GSOMIA. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is scheduled to arrive in South Korea on Thursday before heading to Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Seoul has maintained its stance that the decision could be reconsidered if Tokyo cancels the move it made earlier this year to tighten controls on exports of some materials needed by South Korean manufacturers of semiconductors and display panels.
When asked on Monday about Seoul’s stance, Japan’s top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said it is “unacceptable,” as the issues of export controls and the intelligence-sharing pact should not be linked.
Suga said at a news conference that Seoul has “misread” the current regional security environment, and the termination of the pact is “very regrettable.”
Japan-South Korea ties have been frayed since October last year when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered a Japanese steel-maker to pay compensation for forced labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula.
The relationship between Japanese and South Korean defense authorities further deteriorated in December when the South Korean Navy allegedly locked its fire-control radar on a Self-Defense Forces patrol plane.
In June, former Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya held an informal meeting with Jeong in Singapore.
Kono, a former foreign minister who assumed his current post in September’s Cabinet reshuffle, is also considering holding his first bilateral meeting with Esper while in Thailand, according to the source.
The ADMM-Plus meeting involves the defense ministers 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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