US, South Korea, Japan defence chiefs agree to strengthen joint defence in face of North Korea threat

US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter (centre) shakes hands with Japanese Defence Minister Gen Nakatani (left) and South Korean Defence Minister Han Min Koo (right) at a trilateral meeting at the sidelines of the IISS 15th Asia Security Summit, on June 4, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

SINGAPORE - The United States, South Korea, and Japan agreed on Saturday (June 4) to step up trilateral cooperation to deal with North Korea's nuclear and missile threats, Seoul's defence ministry said according to Yonhap news agency.

Japan and South Korea also agreed to expand an emergency communication system between their defence ministries, including adding a new direct line between defence ministers, Reuters reported.

The moves are seen as a response to recent provocations by North Korea. The isolated country led by Kim Jong Un conducted its fourth nuclear test in January and has followed it up with missile tests, defying fresh international sanctions imposed by the UN in March.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, his South Korean counterpart Han Min Koo and Japan's Gen Nakatani came to an understanding in a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue that "the partners face common challenges including North Korea's nuclear and missile threats," the ministry was cited by Yonhap as saying in a statement.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, now in its 15th year, is an annual summit of 600 defence ministers, scholars and business executives from Asia Pacific organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

The defence chiefs also discussed their upcoming joint anti-ballistic missile defence exercise set to take place in Hawaii ahead of the multilateral Rim of the Pacific exercise (RIMPAC), which is scheduled to run from June 30 to Aug 4.

Mr Nakatani told reporters after his meeting with Mr Han that the new emergency communication system between their defence ministries will come into play in the event of security-related emergencies such as a missile launch.

"What it means is that we will make use of phones for emergency communication, when...communication and coordination between the defence authorities of the two countries are needed," Mr Nakatani said according to Reuters.

He said such emergency phone lines would be expanded to include a new direct link between the two countries' defence ministers.

Talks would continue on sharing and safeguarding sensitive information on Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programmes, he added. Under the framework, South Korea would pass relevant information to the United States, with which Seoul already has a legally-binding pact to share and safeguard intelligence called General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The United States would then pass the information on to Japan.

It would work similarly the other way around since the United States has also signed a GSOMIA with Japan, reported Reuters.

Mr Carter also held separate bilateral meetings with Mr Han and Mr Nakatani on Saturday.

In the latter meeting, Mr Carter and Mr Nakatani signed a Memorandum of Understanding that would waive restrictions on Japanese components used in military equipment, making it easier for Japanese firms to supply US arms contractors and tap the US$600 billion (S$814 billion) US military market, Reuters reported.

In the meeting with Mr Han, the Pentagon chief was cited by the ministry as saying that the US is committed to implementing a full range of military capabilities to deter any North Korean attack on South Korea.

"Secretary of Defense Carter stressed that the US will continue to provide extended deterrence to South Korea, utilising all categories of military capabilities," the South Korean ministry said according to Yonhap.

"Alliance between the US and the Republic of Korea remains the linchpin of the regional peace and security particularly in light of North Korea's recent provocations," Carter said at the beginning of the talks, Yonhap reported.

"The US commitment to the defence of the Republic of Korea is ironclad."

South Korea has called for harsher sanctions against the North, characterising its recent provocations, most recently a failed missile launch on Tuesday, as "nuclear blackmail" and calling existing punishments as no more than a "slap on the wrist".

Mr Yoon Soon Gu, director-general of the the South's defence ministry's International Policy Bureau, said at a Shangri-La Dialogue panel discussion: "Considering the unpredictability of the Kim Jong Un regime, failure to contain the threat can lead to catastrophic consequences."

Both Mr Yoon and Mr Shinsuke Sugiyama, Japan's deputy foreign affairs minister, said China, which accounts for 90 per cent of North Korea's foreign trade, should exert more pressure on Kim Jong Un's regime.

China's National Defence University associate researcher, Colonel Lu Yin, however, pointed out that the country's actions are in line with UN resolutions - and that it was "not the truth" that the North will "give in and abandon nuclear weapons if China can exert enough pressure".

She called for a multilateral solution to the problem, in the form of the resumption of Six-Party negotiations among the US, China, Japan, Russia and the two Koreas. North Korea formally withdrew in 2009 from the talks. Beijing wants the talks revived but Washington, Seoul and Tokyo all insist Pyongyang must first take tangible steps towards denuclearisation.

Referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Colonel Lu said: "If we don't talk to them, they will continue with the nuclear programme. There have been historical instances of the DPRK being prepared to trade its nuclear programme for economic benefits or survival."

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