By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – The United States was “very encouraged” by a recent meeting between the leaders of South Korea and Japan, a top U.S. diplomat said on Wednesday, as strained ties threatened to undercut three-way security cooperation on North Korea.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Stilwell arrived in Seoul on Tuesday as relations between Seoul and Tokyo, key U.S. allies, have plunged to their worst state in decades after South Korea’s top court ordered Japanese firms to compensate wartime forced labourers last year.
But South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had an 11-minute conversation on the sidelines of an international conference in Bangkok on Monday, also attended by U.S. officials, the first time they had met in more than a year.
“Very encouraged while we were there to note that President Moon and Prime minister Abe had the opportunity to talk,” Stilwell told reporters after meetings with South Korean officials. “That’s an encouraging sign as we watch the relationship improve.”
His visit came as an intelligence-sharing pact between South Korea and Japan is set to expire this month. Seoul decided not to renew the agreement, known as GSOMIA, amid a spiralling political and trade row, a decision that Washington has criticised.
Stilwell met with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young, but did not respond to a question on whether they discussed it.
Both sides were also expected to discuss ways to reinvigorate stalled denuclearisation talks between the United States and North Korea.
Envoys from the two countries met in Stockholm last month for the first time since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed in June to reopen negotiations after a failed summit in Vietnam in February. But the meeting fell apart, with the North’s envoy saying the U.S. side failed to show flexibility.
They could hold a fresh round of talks as soon as mid-November as Kim set sights on another summit with Trump in December, a South Korean lawmaker said on Monday after being briefed by a spy agency.
The lacklustre negotiations also affected inter-Korean cooperation, stalled after a flurry of summits last year.
Kim last week vowed to remove South Korea’s “shabby,” “capitalist” facilities from the North’s Mt. Kumgang resort, once a symbol of cross-border rapprochement.
The South’s Unification Ministry, which is in charge of inter-Korean ties, said on Wednesday it has proposed sending a delegation of officials from the government and companies that built the facilities for an inspection, after the North rejected its offer of talks.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Editing by Gerry Doyle)