South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup had the 50-minute trilateral talks with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi at noon local time. The rare in-person meeting was held on the sidelines of the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue Asian security summit that runs until Sunday in Singapore.
The defense chiefs discussed ways to enhance trilateral security cooperation against North Korean threats and address other common security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, according to the joint press statement.
The three leaders promised to continue close trilateral coordination toward the goal of achieving complete denuclearization and establishing permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Sending message to Pyongyang
Lee, Austin and Kishi specifically agreed to cope with North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs through “concerted trilateral cooperation.”
Notably, the three ”further committed to conduct trilateral missile warning and ballistic missile search and tracking exercises” in the joint press statement.
The drills mainly aim to enhance interoperability and coordination over detecting, tracking and assessing ballistic targets.
In essence, South Korea, the US, and Japan agreed to regularize and publicize the two types of trilateral exercises that have been deliberately conducted low-key, South Korean senior officials, who wished to remain anonymous, at the Defense Ministry said during a closed-door briefing.
The three countries have staged the Pacific Dragon ballistic missile defense exercise in Hawaii on the occasion of the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) Exercise.
In addition, the three countries have failed to stage simulation-based “missile warning exercises” every three months as they agreed, one of the officials explained.
The senior official elucidated that the decision mainly aims to “send an external signal” and message to North Korea which has heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea has launched 31 ballistic missiles including intercontinental ballistic missiles in less than six months this year, breaking the previous record of 25 in 2019.
“(The three) agreed to expeditiously set up plans for the trilateral exercises and conduct them as scheduled without any setbacks in light of the grave situation,” the South Korean official said during a closed-door briefing.
Further trilateral actions
The three defense chiefs also agreed to “identify further trilateral actions in order to address DPRK ballistic missile launches” in the joint statement.
The South Korean official explained that the three countries will come up with measures at the working-level talks.
But one of the ways could be the resumption of trilateral non-military trainings such as Search and Rescue Exercise (SAREX) and a counter-terrorism exercise that have been suspended in the wake of military dispute between Seoul and Tokyo in 2018. At the time, Japan accused a South Korean navy destroyer of directing its fire-control radar at a Japanese military surveillance aircraft.
The official said South Korea’s position is to gradually resume the trilateral exercises to improve the interoperatnilby among the three countries.
“But North Korea’s moves will decide the scope of the (trilateral) exercises.“
In the joint statement, the three defense chiefs also “shared the recognition that defense-related confidence building among countries in the region is important,” according to the joint statement.
The leaders “committed to strengthening cooperation to institutionalize such efforts,” it read, without further details. But the senior official said the establishment of hotlines could be one example.
Coordination against regional challenges
The three defense chiefs also took note of the importance of deepening trilateral cooperation on the key regional issues in the Indo-Pacific region through various channels such as information sharing, high-level policy consultations, and combined exercises.
The joint statement also carried their united message against China’s attempt to change the status quo although it did not make any direct mention of China.
“They expressed strong opposition to any unilateral actions that seek to alter the status quo and increase tensions in the region,” it said, recognizing the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
“They shared concerns on activities that are inconsistent with the international rules-based order and stressed the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight.”
The move is in line with the Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific engagement strategy that aims to align and coordinate the three countries’ regional strategies and handle North Korean threats and other regional issues through trilateral channels.
The trilateral meeting was held for the first time since November 2019, when the three defense chiefs met on the occasion of the sixth ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus held in Bangkok.
The defense ministerial talks also came days after the chief envoys and vice foreign ministers of the three countries met in Seoul earlier this month.