South Korea’s defense minister signaled the country may strengthen its military cooperation with rival Japan as the two U.S. allies work to boost regional security against threats like the ones posed by North Korea.
Suh Wook, who held talks last week with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on their debut trip abroad since taking office, said Seoul considers Japan as one of its crucial security partners and wants to continue its cooperation with the neighbor in partnership with the U.S.
“What is protecting the Korean Peninsula is centered around the Korea-U.S. alliance, but we believe the Korea-Japan security cooperation is also a valuable asset, which is why we need to maintain this,” Suh said in a Bloomberg Television interview, a day after finishing talks with the U.S. envoys.
The visits to Tokyo and Seoul by Blinken and Austin appeared to help defrost chilly relations between the neighbors, who host the bulk of American troops in the region. Ties plunged during U.S. President Donald Trump’s tenure as tensions arising from historical differences touched off a trade dispute that at one point threatened global supply lines for semiconductors and nearly led South Korea to abandon a joint intelligence-sharing agreement.
“There is indeed the matter of history-related issues, but we feel that the Korea-Japan relations are needed in terms of defense cooperation,” he said. “We will continue to hold military talks and continue on cooperation in the future.”
The defense minister also said that Seoul would continue to develop its alliance with the new Biden administration, allowing it to play a bigger security role on the international stage.
President Moon Jae-in’s government has embarked on one of the country’s biggest military build-ups in years, seeking to add an aircraft carrier and nuclear-powered submarine. The moves would allow it to project more power abroad and comes after the Trump administration pushed Seoul to increase its presence in international security arrangements, such as guarding waterways in the Middle East from which South Korea receives the bulk of its oil.
Asked about South Korean plans to build an aircraft carrier, Suh characterized it has part of creating a more flexible military.
“It’s for preparing against potential threats in the future — a matter of range for the Korean Peninsula — and to secure flexibility for matters such as humanitarian assistance, which is why we believe it’s necessary.”
The Biden administration has also been seeking help from allies to form policy against what Blinken called Chinese “aggression and coercion,” which puts South Korea in a difficult position. Beijing is its biggest trading partner and a key player in persuading North Korea to wind down its nuclear arsenal.
Suh said there had been advancements in the long-delayed transfer of wartime troop management known as Operational Control Authority, or OPCON, from the U.S. to South Korea and highlighted South Korea’s New Southern Policy, aimed at elevating ties with Southeast Asia and India.
“Actually, there’s not much difference in terms of bringing the current combined forces command to a future version of the combined forces command besides switching the position of the commander-in-chief and the deputy commander-in-chief,” Suh said. “In that sense, our stance in readiness doesn’t have much of a change besides the citizenship of the commander-in-chief, so we believe there’s no need to be worried about the issue of our readiness posture.”
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