Crucial to have US forces on Korean peninsula even after denuclearisation: US and Japan defence chiefs

US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis speaks to reporters aboard a US military plane on May 29, 2018, as he flies to Hawaii.
US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis speaks to reporters aboard a US military plane on May 29, 2018, as he flies to Hawaii.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO - The defence chiefs of the United States and Japan have agreed that it is crucial to have American forces on the Korean peninsula for regional deterrence, whether or not North Korea abandons its arsenal of nuclear and ballistic missile weapons.

US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis and Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera had on Tuesday (May 29) noted that North Korea may ask for a reduction of troops at its unprecedented summit with the US in Singapore.

In their second meeting in five weeks, the two officials also stressed that their nations were aligned on keeping maximum pressure on the North until its complete denuclearisation.

Their meeting came amid a whirlwind of diplomatic activity in the run-up to an expected summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which is on track to be held on June 12. This will be the first-ever sit-down between the incumbent leaders of their countries.

Depending on how their summit goes, Tokyo is mulling a meeting between Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his North Korean counterpart Ri Yong Ho in early August. This will also take place in Singapore, on the sidelines of the Asean Regional Forum, Kyodo News reported on Wednesday (May 30).

Mr Onodera and Mr Mattis had met for an hour in Hawaii, where they were to attend a change-of-command ceremony for the US Pacific Command. The outgoing commander, Admiral Harry Harris, has been nominated as the new US envoy to South Korea.

"In particular, we confirmed that we are completely in agreement on the importance of resolving the abductions issue, and that the North's missile disarmament will also include its short-range ballistic missiles," Mr Onodera told reporters after the meeting.

They may meet again in Singapore this weekend, together with South Korean counterpart Song Young Moo, on the sidelines of the high-level Shangri-La Dialogue.

Japan has set as a pre-condition for the normalisation of ties with the North the resolution of the longstanding abductions issue. It wants North Korea to return the Japanese citizens it kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s, or to provide concrete DNA proof should they have died.

Tokyo has also been anxious that Washington might strike a bargain with Pyongyang to get the communist regime to give up its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) but keep the short- and medium-range missiles, which will leave Japan squarely in the crosshairs.

Their discussions came as Japan, long bound by a pacifist Constitution that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to revise, said last week that it wants to lift its self-imposed cap on defence spending at 1 per cent of its gross domestic product.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) said that Japan "faces its biggest crisis in the post-war period", and that its defence spending ceiling should be commensurate with that of other countries. It often cites the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's target for its member nations to devote at least 2 per cent of GDP to defence.

Former top diplomat Hitoshi Tanaka, who was actively involved in negotiations for then-prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Pyongyang in 2002 and 2004, also told reporters on Wednesday that any reduction of US troops in the region was unlikely.

Mr Tanaka, who now chairs the Japan Research Institute for International Strategy think-tank, said: "Think about it. The US sees Russia and China as security threats and are trying to counter these powers. Do you think they will be willing to diminish its presence in the region?"

Referring to China's increasing military assertiveness, he added: "Japan's threat is not just North Korea, and its security and defence strategy is not 100 per cent dependent on the situation in North Korea."

In the meantime, Japan is one of the most vocal proponents in continuing the "maximum pressure" campaign that it considers instrumental in drawing North Korea to dialogue.

And in spite of recent developments, it has warned that sanctions pressure should be maintained until concrete steps are taken. In doing so, it cites historical precedents to show how the world had been hoodwinked by Pyongyang's charm offensive - only for the North to not fulfil its end of the bargain.

Japan has stepped up its policing of regional waters, working with the US, Britain, Australia and Canada. This month, it reported to the United Nations Security Council a suspected illicit ship-to-ship transfer between a North Korean-flagged vessel and what was purportedly a Chinese ship.

Depending on how the talks between Mr Trump and Mr Kim turn out, Japan hopes to eventually lay the ground for Mr Abe to meet the North Korean leader.

Rather than merely relying on other countries, Mr Tanaka said: "These countries can help to build the momentum but Japan has to directly confront North Korea to solve its own issues. And for this reason these talks should be held at the earliest possible time."