Photo/IllutrationFrom left, South Korean National Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Defense Minister Taro Kono prior to the tripartite talks in Bangkok on Nov. 17 (Pool)

  • Photo/Illustraion

BANGKOK--Top defense officials of Japan, South Korea and the United States were all smiles for the camera here on Nov. 17, but somber tripartite talks failed to maintain an expiring intelligence-sharing pact.

Defense Minister Taro Kono met with South Korean National Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper to discuss the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).

The GSOMIA, which allows the two Asian neighbors to share defense intelligence such as notification of North Korean missile launches, will expire on Nov. 23 unless Tokyo and Seoul can fashion a face-saving compromise behind closed doors.

South Korea decided in August not to renew the intelligence-sharing pact amid deteriorating bilateral relations in recent months, prompting the U.S. government to serve as a go-between.

On Nov. 17, Kono and Jeong held talks for about 40 minutes prior to the tripartite meeting.

With recurrent missile launches by North Korea and other security-related concerns in mind, Kono asked South Korea to maintain the GSOMIA.

“There is an ongoing extremely tough situation between defense officials of the two nations, but I ask for a wise response from South Korea to improve the situation,” Kono said.

However, Jeong demanded that Japan first re-examine its tightening of controls on the export of high-tech materials to South Korea, according to officials of the South Korean National Defense Ministry.

Jeong emphasized that the decision to scrap the GSOMIA was inevitable by Seoul after Japan imposed restraints on exports to South Korea on the grounds of national security in July.

During the tripartite meeting, Esper reiterated the importance of maintaining the pact, and said that Japan and South Korea need to overcome their bilateral issues in order not to play into the hands of North Korea and China.

A joint statement released after the three-way meeting did not directly mention the GSOMIA.

However, the statement says that the three nations share the understanding that fostering trust among one another over security-related issues is important and will strengthen cooperative ties to institutionalize efforts to achieve the goal.

According to a source close to the South Korean presidential office, the Moon administration does not expect Japan to retract the tightened export controls on South Korea.

“If the Japanese side shows a change in attitude and agrees to hold talks, it will provide justification for South Korea to renew the GSOMIA,” the source said.

In the meantime, a high-ranking official of the presidential office predicted that the GSOMIA will expire unless Japan makes the first move.

“The situation will not change by the United States on its own trying to get things moving,” the official said. "The South Korean government, too, wants to maintain face."

The Japanese government has expressed a stance that it will not re-examine export restrictions as a condition for renewing the GSOMIA.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that the GSOMIA and export restrictions “are entirely different issues.”

Officials of the prime minister’s office have expressed hopes that the stalemate can still be broken depending on South Korea’s response.

“Japan, too, has thought a lot about it. The issue regarding export controls can be dealt with between the authorities concerned,” an official said.

Kono told reporters after the series of meetings, “(The three nations) have agreed that it is important to maintain and strengthen cooperation among our relevant defense authorities."

(This article was written by Ryuichi Yamashita and Takeshi Kamiya, correspondent.)