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Japan 'downgrades' S. Korea in annual defense report

This combined file photo shows Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japan has given South Korea the cold shoulder in an annual defense report released Friday, effectively downgrading Seoul's status as an important security cooperation partner, as relations between the two Asian neighbors have sunk to the lowest level in many years over issues of wartime history and compensation.

In a chapter explaining Japan's security cooperation with countries other than its most important ally, the United States, South Korea is mentioned fourth, down from second in the previous white paper, after Australia, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Japanese officials do not publicly admit that the change in the order is a lowering of South Korea's standing. But a Defense Ministry source has said, "In effect, it means a downgrade."

The report said some "negative" actions by Seoul have affected bilateral defense cooperation such as a South Korean destroyer's alleged lock-on of its fire-control radar on a Japanese patrol plane in December. The Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces will continue to call on Seoul to "appropriately deal with these matters," it said.

The report also mentioned South Korea's decision in August to withdraw from a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, quoting the Japanese defense minister as calling it "extremely regrettable."

"We just listed the facts," Defense Minister Taro Kono told a press conference, adding that "Japan has not taken any particular negative actions" and that he wants South Korea to "make a wise judgment."

South Korea's Foreign Ministry blamed the report for characterizing a South Korean-controlled group of islets as an inherent part of Japan's territory, demanding the reference be retracted.

South Korea's foreign and defense ministries said they summoned a minister and a military attache at the Japanese Embassy in Seoul to lodge a protest.

However, the ministry statement, issued by a spokesperson, did not address Japan's effective downgrading of South Korea's status as a security cooperation partner in the report.

Japan lays claims to the rocky outcroppings, known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea. South Korea took effective control of the islets in 1954.

After South Korea's Supreme Court last year ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation for wartime labor, despite signing a treaty supposedly settling the issue in 1965, bilateral ties nosedived to their lowest ebb in decades, with repercussions now spilling over onto the economic front as well.

The annual report, approved by the Cabinet on Friday, uses many expressions that appeared in Japan's newest national defense guidelines formulated in December.

As for China, the report expressed concerns over its continuous high-level growth of defense expenditures, rapid advancement of its capabilities in new security fields such as cyberspace, and expansion of military activities in regional waters and airspace.

"The regional and international communities, including Japan, therefore have strong security concerns about" such developments, the report said.

But it also said China is highly expected to "play an active role in a more cooperative manner on regional and global issues."

On North Korea, the ministry maintained the recognition that its military activities "pose a grave and imminent threat to the security of Japan."

It said there has been "no essential change in North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities," and Pyongyang is "assessed to have already miniaturized nuclear weapons to fit ballistic missile warheads."

Japan also showed a sense of vigilance against Russia's military activities near Japanese airspace, saying they require "close scrutiny."

The report said that a joint flight in July by Russian and Chinese bombers over the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea suggests Moscow and Beijing have been promoting their military cooperation.

Among domestic issues, the ministry said it "sincerely reflects" on a blunder in its survey to evaluate candidate areas for the planned deployment of the U.S.-developed Aegis Ashore land-based missile defense batteries.

To counter the threat of North Korean missiles, the ministry has sought to introduce the Aegis Ashore system in Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures. But the plan has come to a standstill as a geographical survey for the deployment was found to have used erroneous data in May, triggering a local backlash.

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