Defense chief will talk North in Singapore

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Defense chief will talk North in Singapore

South Korea’s defense minister will participate in a regional security forum later this week and hold bilateral and multilateral talks to promote the government’s efforts to build inter-Korean trust and denuclearize the North.

Minister of Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo will attend the 19th Asia Security Summit - better known as the Shangri-La Dialogue - the Ministry of National Defense said Thursday. Jeong will leave for Singapore on Friday to attend the three-day conference, attended by top defense officials from major countries of the Asia-Pacific region and Europe.

According to the ministry, Jeong will deliver a speech on Saturday and outline the Moon Jae-in administration’s security policy, which is aimed at creating a new order for the peace and prosperity of Northeast Asia.

“He will explain the government’s efforts to achieve denuclearization and permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula and reduce tensions and build trust between the two Koreas,” the ministry said. “He will ask for the international community’s support and cooperation” for the Moon administration’s campaign for a “New Korean Peninsula regime.”

The chief nuclear negotiators of Seoul, Tokyo and Washington will also attend the conference and discuss cooperative measures to denuclearize the North. It is rare for the diplomats to attend such a defense conference.

Lee Do-hoon, special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, will attend the forum and meet with his U.S. counterpart, Stephen Biegun, and his Japanese counterpart, Kenji Kanasugi. They will discuss “continued coordination on our goal of the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.

On the sidelines of the conference, Jeong will have a series of bilateral meetings with his counterparts from major countries. He will have a bilateral meeting with Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe. He will also have bilateral meetings with British, Singaporean, European Union (UN) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officials, the ministry said.

A trilateral meeting of defense chiefs of Seoul, Tokyo and Washington will also take place on the sidelines of the regional dialogue. Jeong will sit down with acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya on Sunday.

Yet it has not been confirmed whether Jeong and Iwaya will have a bilateral meeting. Frictions between Seoul and Tokyo have grown over the past months following Japanese warplanes’ repeated low-altitude flybys of South Korean navy ships. In January, Jeong instructed the military to sternly deal with this “serious provocation.”

On May 18, Iwaya said he wants to meet with Jeong in Singapore and restore their relationship, fueling speculation that Seoul and Tokyo will resume their stalled defense cooperation after the North’s recent missile firings. Yet this stance appeared to be retracted, according to Japanese media this week. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported on Tuesday that Iwaya decided to postpone an official bilateral meeting with Jeong.

Speculation is growing that they will still have informal, pull-aside contact, instead of sitting down for a bilateral talk.

Shanahan will visit Korea after the Singapore trip and meet with Jeong on Monday, the ministry said. In addition to North Korea, other issues concerning the bilateral military alliance between Seoul and Washington - such as the scheduling of Korea-U.S. joint military exercises and the U.S. handover of the wartime operational control to Korea - are expected to be discussed.

In addition to the North Korea issues, the escalating U.S.-China tension over the South China Sea is expected to be discussed at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Shanahan is expected to promote the U.S. President Donald Trump’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, while Wei is expected to counter this idea by stressing China’s role in the region. It is first time since 2011 for Beijing to send its defense minister to the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Jeong, as well as defense chiefs from other countries, could be pressured to take the sides with the United States or China on the dispute concerning the South China Sea. Seoul has never made its stance clear.

It has long maintained the official position that it supports freedom of navigation and flights over the South China Sea and hopes the parties involved resolve the dispute in a peaceful manner under the principles of international law.

Despite Korea’s decades-long military alliance with the United States, the Moon administration has also never openly committed to participating in the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

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