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(6th LD) Park agrees with Biden to work together over regional air zone row

2013/12/06 20:09

By Chang Jae-soon

SEOUL, Dec. 6 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and the United States agreed Friday to work closely together over a regional row surrounding China's unilateral expansion of its air defense zone, Seoul's foreign minister said, as the South prepares to expand its own aerial identification region.

The air zone dispute, which has dramatically escalated tensions in Northeast Asia, was a key topic when South Korean President Park Geun-hye held talks with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, as has been with the top American official's earlier stops in Japan and China.

Friday's meeting was watched closely for how Biden will react to Seoul's plan to expand its own air defense zone in response to Beijing's unilateral decision amid speculation that Washington might be against altering the status quo in the region.

When Park outlined South Korea's stance on the issue, Biden "appreciated President Park's explanation and South Korea's efforts," Seoul's Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se told reporters, declining to be more specific on the U.S. position.

"The two sides agreed to continue close consultations on this issue," he said.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden ahead of a meeting in Seoul on Dec. 6. (Yonhap)

The Chinese air defense identification zone (ADIZ) above the East China Sea overlaps those of South Korea and Japan, and includes the South Korean-controlled reef of Ieodo, as well as a set of islands at the center of a territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing.

China's unexpected announcement on Nov. 23 was seen as a strong sign that Beijing is taking its foreign policy assertiveness to a higher level in part to counter U.S. efforts to increase its influence in the region under President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia" policy.

Beijing demanded all aircraft entering the zone to notify Chinese authorities beforehand.

In a show of defiance, South Korea has flown aircraft through the zone, as has the U.S. and Japan. Seoul has also been preparing to expand its own zone, Korea's ADIZ (KADIZ), after Beijing refused to reconsider its decision when the sides held high-level defense talks last week.

Related to the expansion of the air zone, President Park's national security chief Kim Jang-soo presided over a meeting of foreign affairs and security ministers later in the day to discuss the matter in detail.

At the talks, policymakers provisionally agreed to expand KADIZ, a source said, hinting that the new line may be announced as early as Sunday.

Independent observers have speculated Seoul's new air identification zone will at least cover the Ocean Research Station on Ieodo and other nearby southern islands of Marado and Hongdo. Ieodo is an underwater rock formation and therefore not a sovereign territory, but Marado and Hongdo are South Korean islands that have for various reasons been left out of the KADIZ. Some informed sources said the new boundary may be extended as far south as 100 kilometers from Ieodo so as to make it coincide with South Korea's flight information region designated by the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Meanwhile, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said South Korea's expansion of its air zone "should be in line with international law and convention." China will stay in communication with Seoul over the issue, he said.

At the start of the talks with Park, Biden said U.S. commitment to Asia should never be doubted.

"I want to make one thing absolutely clear. President Obama's decision to rebalance to the Pacific basin is not in question," Biden said at the start of the meeting.

"The United States never says anything it does not do," he said, adding that it has "never been a good bet to bet against America ... and America will continue to place its bet on South Korea."

   The U.S. has said it won't recognize the Chinese zone. Last week, the U.S. military flew a pair of B-52 bombers through the zone without notifying Beijing, raising fears of a clash between the two superpowers.

But there had been concerns that Washington's position appeared to have softened since.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration later told American airlines to comply with the protocol of submitting flight plans before entering foreign air defense zones, though U.S. officials claimed that it doesn't indicate recognition of China's zone but adherence to existing protocol to ensure civilian passenger safety.

In a speech at Seoul's Yonsei University later in the day, Biden said China's air zone announcement caused "very serious apprehension across the region" and that the U.S. remains firm on not recognizing it.

"I was very clear we do not recognize the zone," Biden said, referring to his talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this week. "It will have no effect on America's operations. Just ask my general. None. Zero."

   Biden also said the U.S. is firmly committed to defending South Korea from North Korea's aggressions and warned Pyongyang that the international community will never tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Meanwhile, Park and Biden spent nearly three hours together as they held talks and then had lunch. Other topics for their talks included North Korea's nuclear program and Seoul's frayed relations with Tokyo, South Korea's foreign minister said.

On North Korea, Park and Biden agreed that the two sides should continue to work closely together with China and other members of the six-party talks to get Pyongyang to demonstrate its denuclearization commitment, Yun said.

Also discussed was an "internal situation" in North Korea, the policymaker said.

The minister declined to elaborate, but the "internal situation" is believed to include a purge campaign that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is believed to be carrying out against his uncle Jang Song-thaek, one of Pyongyang's highest-ranking officials, who has widely been known as a caretaker of the young leader.

Seoul's spy agency said Tuesday that two key aides of Jang have been executed in public and that Jang is also believed to have been removed from all positions. His fall, if confirmed, would represent a big change in Pyongyang's inner circle and could affect its policies.

Biden told Park that the U.S. wants South Korea and Japan to resolve obstacles to better ties at an early date and improve their relations, saying both of the Asian nations are important allies to the U.S., according to Yun.

Park said she believes Japan should become an important partner for cooperation and that the two neighboring countries will be able to build future-oriented relations. She also said she anticipates Japan to take "sincere" measures.

Frayed relations between Seoul and Tokyo have been a cause for concern for the United States as Washington seeks to build a strong, three-way security cooperation with the two Asian allies in an effort to keep a rising China in check.

Relations between South Korea and Japan were strained even before Park took office in February and have soured further since, due to Japan's repeated claims to South Korea's easternmost islets of Dokdo and its unrepentant attitude toward the sexual slavery issue.

Park has rejected calls for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, saying she sees no point in holding talks with him so long as Tokyo maintains its wrong perception of history.

Biden also welcomed South Korea's show of interest in joining the Trans Pacific Partnership, a proposed regional free trade deal among Asia-Pacific nations led by the U.S., the foreign minister said.

jschang@yna.co.kr

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