US diplomat says talks with Japan, South Korea 'constructive' despite news conference no-show

Wendy Sherman (above, in a file photo) said she and her counterparts had discussed issues relating to the South China Sea, the Indo-Pacific region, democratic values and human rights.. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said on Wednesday (Nov 17) she had constructive talks with officials from Japan and South Korea, despite "bilateral differences" that caused her two counterparts to pull out of a planned news conference.

Addressing reporters alone after the three-hour meeting with South Korean First Vice-Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun and Japanese Vice-Foreign Minister Takeo Mori, Sherman said the talks were "constructive (and) substantive."

The three officials discussed freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, the three countries' commitment to advancing democratic values and human rights, and restated their commitment to maintaining an inclusive, free, peaceful, stable and open Indo-Pacific region, Sherman said.

However, Sherman began a news conference following the meeting by noting that "as has been the case for some time, there are some bilateral differences between Japan and the Republic of Korea that are continuing to be resolved."

Sherman did not say what specifically had prevented the scheduled joint press conference from taking place.

A Japanese Embassy spokesman said Japan's vice-foreign minister pulled out of the news conference with his South Korean and US counterparts over a territorial dispute between the two US allies.

Mr Masashi Mizobuchi said Japan had "lodged a strong protest" on Tuesday over a visit by South Korea's head of police to disputed islets between the countries, known as Takeshima in Japan.

The cluster of windswept volcanic rocks is controlled by Seoul, which calls them Dokdo, but they are also claimed by Tokyo.

"Under these circumstances, we have decided that it is inappropriate to hold a joint press conference," Mr Mizobuchi said in an email.

Mr Choi told reporters in Washington that the Japanese side informed them of its decision not to participate in the news conference shortly before the trilateral talks began.

A spokesman for South Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said he had nothing to add to Mr Choi's remarks but that Seoul's stance remains unchanged that Dokdo is the country's territory historically, geographically and under international law.

Bilateral ties between the two nations have frayed over Japan's 1910-1945 occupation of Korea, including over "comfort women," Japan's euphemism for mostly Korean women forced to work in its wartime brothels. The historic dispute has sparked tit-for-tat trade restrictions in recent years.

"One of those differences which is unrelated to today's meeting has led to the change in format for today's press availability," Sherman said, adding that the constructive meeting nonetheless demonstrated that the format of trilateral talks between the three countries are "important and powerful."

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