America, Japan say US troops must stay in S. Korea

Defence chiefs agree on need, whether or not Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons

The defence chiefs of the United States and Japan have agreed that it is crucial to have US 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 James Mattis and Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera noted on Tuesday that North Korea may ask for a reduction of troops at its unprecedented summit with the US.

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

The meeting came amid a whirlwind of diplomatic activity in the run-up to an expected summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which is on track to be held in Singapore on June 12.

Depending on how their summit goes, Tokyo is mulling over 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 yesterday.

Mr Onodera and Mr Mattis had met for an hour in Hawaii, where they attended a change-of-command ceremony for the US Pacific Command. Outgoing commander Harry Harris has been nominated as the new 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.

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 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.

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 said yesterday that any US troop reduction in the region was unlikely.

"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?" said Mr Tanaka, who now chairs the Japan Research Institute for International Strategy think-tank.

"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," he added, referring to China's increasing military assertiveness.

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

But it hopes to eventually lay the ground for Mr Abe to meet Mr Kim.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2018, with the headline 'America, Japan say US troops must stay in S. Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe