TOKYO, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada said on Saturday she hoped a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to South Korea and Japan this week, his first overseas trip since taking office, would lead to deeper security ties among the three countries.
Inada spoke at the start of talks with Mattis, who on Friday reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to its mutual defense treaty with Japan when he met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.
“The security situation in the Asia-Pacific is becoming increasingly severe,” Inada said, adding she wanted to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance.
“South Korea is an important neighbor,” Inada added. “I want to link Secretary Mattis’ visit to Japan and South Korea to the further deepening of defense cooperation among the three countries.”
Japan’s relations with South Korea have frayed in recent weeks due to a feud over wartime history, just as tensions over North Korea make cooperation between the two allies vital.
Japan last month temporarily recalled its ambassador to South Korea over a statue near the Japanese consulate in Busan city commemorating Korean “comfort women”. Japan also suspended talks on a new currency swap arrangement.
The term “comfort women” is a euphemism for women forced to work in Japanese military brothels. South Korean activists estimate that there may have been as many as 200,000 Korean victims.
Tokyo says the statue, put in place late last year, and another near the Japanese embassy in Seoul, violate a December 2015 agreement stating the issue - which has long plagued ties - would be “irreversibly resolved” if all conditions were met.
Mattis said on Friday that provocations by North Korea, which is advancing its nuclear weapons and missile programs in defiance of U.N. resolutions, left no room for doubt about U.S. commitment to Japan’s defense. It was similar to the message he delivered in South Korea.
He appeared eager to reassure Japan of U.S. resolve, after a 2016 election campaign in which Donald Trump, before becoming president, suggested both South Korea and Japan were benefiting from a U.S. security umbrella without sharing enough of the costs.
Japan has also been keen for assurances that the Trump administration will adhere to Washington’s commitment to defend disputed East China Sea islands that are under Japanese control but claimed also by China. (reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo; writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Nick Macfie)