US official says Moon-Abe meeting was 'encouraging sign'

SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of — A senior U.S. official said Wednesday an unexpected meeting this week between the leaders of South Korea and Japan was an “encouraging sign” that the Asian U.S. allies are on track to improve a relationship strained by deep disagreements over trade and history.

David Stilwell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, spoke while visiting South Korea weeks before the expiration of a military intelligence-sharing agreement between Seoul and Tokyo. The Trump administration been pressuring its allies to keep the deal, which symbolizes the countries’ trilateral security co-operation with Washington in face of the North Korean nuclear threat and China’s growing influence.

On Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in initiated an 11-minute meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of a regional forum in Thailand, the latest step taken by Seoul to deescalate the feud with the deadline on the military agreement approaching.

“President Moon and Prime Minister Abe had the opportunity to talk and that’s an encouraging sign as we watched the relationship improve,” Stilwell told reporters after a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that during her talks with Stilwell and Keith Krach, U.S. undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, Kang explained South Korean efforts to find “rational solutions” through dialogue over the issues with Japan.

Stilwell also met with Kim Hyun-chong, deputy chief of South Korea’s presidential National Security Office, and they had “constructive and future-oriented” talks over the Seoul-Tokyo military pact and ongoing negotiations between Washington and Seoul on sharing the costs for keeping U.S. troops in South Korea, the presidential Blue House said. South Korean and U.S. officials didn’t share the specifics of their discussions.

In recent months, Seoul and Tokyo have seen their relations sink to a low unseen in decades.

Japan has denounced South Korean court rulings calling for Japanese companies to offer reparations to aging South Korean plaintiffs for their World War II forced labour, insisting that all compensation matters were settled when the two countries normalized relations under a 1965 treaty.

South Korea accused Tokyo of ignoring the suffering of South Koreans under Japan’s brutal colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945 and furiously reacted to Japanese moves to tighten controls on key technology exports to the country and downgrade its trade status.

The dispute spilled over to security issues, with Seoul saying it plans to terminate the military agreement with Tokyo. Following an angry reaction from the Trump administration, Seoul said it could reconsider its decision to end the military agreement if Japan relists South Korea as a favoured trade partner. The pact will expire in late November.

Monday’s meeting between Moon and Abe was their first since they held a summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2018.

Kim Tong-Hyung, The Associated Press