- Associated Press - Monday, September 14, 2015

MANILA, Philippines (AP) - The South Korean and Philippine defense chiefs signed an accord Monday to regulate and protect exchanges of classified military information on regional security, including on potential hostilities between the rival Koreas.

The Philippine defense department said the five-year accord signed by South Korean Defense Minister Han Minkoo and Secretary Voltaire Gazmin would enable the Manila government to be better informed of developments on the Korean Peninsula to protect thousands of Filipino workers in the tense region.

The “safety and repatriation of Filipinos residing in the Republic of Korea will be the Philippines’ paramount concern when such contingency erupts between the two Koreas,” the Philippine defense department said in a statement.

About 50,000 Filipinos live and work in South Korea, and a few are in the North. About a tenth of the Philippines’ more than 100 million people have left the poor Southeast Asian nation in search of better jobs and opportunities, and many had been trapped in armed conflicts in recent years, including in the Middle East.

In a news conference following his talks with Gazmin, Han expressed support to the Philippine military’s efforts to modernize and said Seoul was ready to intensify defense ties with Manila.

The underfunded Philippine military has traditionally leaned on the United States, a longtime treaty ally, for military hardware but has turned to other countries, including South Korea, as it scrambled to refleet its ill-equipped air force and navy amid escalating territorial rifts with China.

A South Korean firm will deliver the first two of a dozen fighter jets to the Philippine military later this year. The Philippines has had no fighter jets since it decommissioned its aging F-5 jets in 2005.

When asked about his assessment of regional security, Han tackled the issue of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea carefully. South Korea looks “with great interest” at the disputed region, where about 90 percent of Seoul’s petroleum trade and 30 percent of its trade transit, he said. The disputes have endured in a region where economic cooperation has deepened “but security cooperation has not been up to speed” in a phenomenon he called the “Asia paradox.”

“It is my stance that the relevant nations regarding this area and this situation should solve this situation based on mutual respect toward each other’s sovereignty … and mutual understanding of each nation’s perspective,” Han told reporters.

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