(ATTN: UPDATES with more info in paras 4-5 & 11-14)
SEOUL, Dec. 31 (Yonhap) — South Korea and China set up a hotline between their top defense officials Thursday to reinforce their cooperation on security issues on the Korean Peninsula and in the region.
Defense Minister Han Min-koo had his first telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan earlier in the day on the newly established hotline, the Ministry of National Defense said in a press release.
“During today’s phone call, the two defense ministers shared their understanding of the need to expand defense exchanges between their countries,” the ministry said.
“The establishment of the hotline has provided new progress in the defense exchanges between South Korea and China,” Han was quoted as telling Chang during the conversation. “I expect it can be well utilized so the countries could enhance their cooperation and communication on security issues.”
In response, Chang said China places high priority on its military relations with South Korea and the hotline will further deepen their strategic collaboration, the ministry said.
The opening of the Seoul-Beijing hotline seeks to beef up “strategic communication” with China and lay down a mechanism for close cooperation for various security situations on the Korean Peninsula and in their region, according to the ministry.
In a summit held in July 2014 in Seoul, President Park Geun-hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached an agreement to launch the direct phone line.
In light of the agreement, the countries’ defense ministries have closely worked together to set up the hotline, the ministry said.
“South Korea will proactively capitalize on the hotline to improve mutual understanding and trust and to reinforce high-level strategic communications,” it added.
It is South Korea’s third defense minister-level hotline with a foreign country, following those with the United States and Japan, which were established in 1995 and 1999, respectively.
Experts said the new communication line is likely to help manage a group of sensitive security issues between the countries, including a potential conflict that could arise from their air defense identification zones that are partly overlapped.
It may also be helpful in matching the countries’ actions in the event of an emergency situation regarding North Korea, they said.
Apart from the South, China had been running its hotline with North Korea for a long time as well as with Russia and the United States since 2008.
Separately, China’s defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said in a statement that during the phone conversation, Han told Chang that the inauguration of the hotline would help the militaries of the two nations “increase mutual trust, promote bilateral relations and intensify joint efforts to safeguard regional peace and stability.”
In return, Chang said China is “pleased” to see a gradual improvement of exchanges between the militaries of the two nations, according to Yang.
South Korea and China are former battlefield foes as China fought alongside North Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War, while the United States and 20 other allied countries fought on South Korea’s side under the U.N. flag.
But Seoul and Beijing have steadily improved ties since establishing diplomatic relations in 1992. Though their ties had initially focused heavily on economic aspects, the two countries have increased dialogue and cooperation on political and security issues in recent years as well.