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TOKYO – U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is trying to assuage an Asian ally's worries about America's commitment to the region amid the ongoing denuclearization negotiations with North Korea.
Mattis met Friday with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, who said they agreed to continue joint military exercises and reinforce the response capability of the U.S.-Japan alliance.
The U.S. and Japan, he said, agreed to work with other countries to tackle offshore ship-to-ship transfers by North Korea that may evade economic sanctions. Japan's navy has been actively watching for and submitting photographic evidence of possible sanctions violations to the U.N.
Mattis, after their meeting, told reporters that his visit represents "just how strongly we prioritize this relationship between our two militaries."
Mattis added that even as the U.S. is in "unprecedented negotiations" with North Korea, "in this dynamic time, the longstanding alliance between Japan and the United States stands firm. There is absolute reassurance between the two of us that we stand firm" and the relationship will not be affected by the denuclearization talks.
Onodera earlier this month urged the international community to keep sanctions and surveillance on North Korea, saying it has a history of reneging on agreements.
Speaking at an international security conference in Singapore, Onodera said North Korea agreed to give up nuclear weapons as early as 1994, but has continued to develop them in secret and until last year threatened surrounding countries with a series of ballistic missile launches.
On Friday, he said the U.S. and Japan must work together toward the dismantlement of "all of North Korea's weapons of mass destruction, including biological and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles of all ranges."
Mattis said the two discussed "the opportunities to increase our alliance capabilities, to deepen our cooperation and to enhance regional security."
Noting the small, blue ribbon-shaped lapel pin the minister was wearing, Mattis offered support for efforts to secure the release of 12 Japanese citizens who were abducted by the North Koreans four decades ago. The pin commemorates their abductions, and Japan has argued for their release to be part of the ongoing negotiations with Pyongyang.
Mattis said such humanitarian issues are always present in the deliberations.
On Thursday, Mattis met with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo, assuring him the U.S. will maintain its current number of troops on the Korean Peninsula.
Speaking alongside Song, Mattis read a lengthy statement reinforcing America's "ironclad" commitment to Seoul, adding that "the U.S. will continue to use the full range of diplomatic and military capabilities to uphold this commitment."
During the Tokyo meeting, Onodera presented Mattis with a paddle resembling those used by sumo wrestlers. It was emblazoned with his name. Mattis presented Onodera with a blue tie with small images of the Pentagon on it.
Longstanding sensitivities over the presence of American troops in Japan also came up. Onodera said Mattis agreed to work on the realignment of U.S. troops in Japan as well as increased safety of aircraft used by American military in the country.
Under realignment, the U.S. would transfer several thousand Marines from Okinawa to the American territory of Guam and elsewhere as part of efforts to reduce the impact of the large U.S. military presence on Okinawa residents.
The U.S. also plans to move a Marine Corps air station to a less populated part of Okinawa, but the move has been delayed for years by local opponents who want the facility moved off Okinawa completely
Aircraft safety has been an increasing issue. A series of mishaps involving U.S. military aircraft have inflamed opposition to American bases in Japan in recent months, particularly in Okinawa, the southern island that is home to half the U.S. troops in Japan.