YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — South Korean Air Force personnel are in Guam observing the Cope North exercise for the first time, a significant development because the U.S. has been encouraging them to work more closely with their Japanese neighbors.

The exercise, which involves 1,750 servicemembers from the U.S., Japan and Australia, trains personnel for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, air combat and attacks on surface targets. It runs through Feb. 15.

South Korea and Japan both feel threatened by North Korea and China, but U.S. efforts to bring them together haven’t gained much traction to date. South Korea abruptly canceled plans for an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan last year.

The two nations are struggling to move on from a past that includes Japanese colonial rule in Korea from 1910-45.

The popularity of South Korean music and television in Japan and large numbers of Japanese tourists visiting South Korea each year have drawn the nations closer.

However, many South Koreans are angry that Tokyo has refused to apologize to South Korean women who allegedly were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. Relations have soured further in recent years as the nations have argued over the sovereignty of islands called Dokdo in South Korea and Takeshima in Japan.

U.S. Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Herbert Carlisle said Monday the South Koreans are observing the humanitarian assistance and disaster response portion of Cope North.

They could become full participants in years to come, and other nations — such as New Zealand and the Philippines — could be added, he said.

South Korea and Japan will also participate alongside the U.S. and several other nations in the annual Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand this month.

Japan Air Self Defense Force Air Support Group commander Lt. Gen Masayuki Hironaka said Cope North enhances nations’ ability to work together.

The exercise will iron out technical interoperability issues, but the human element is more important, said Royal Australian Air Force Air Combat Group commander Air Commodore Anthony Grady.

“The human dimension is invaluable,” he said, adding that personnel will gain the ability, in a real-world mission, “to work from day one knowing some of the key decision-makers [from the other air forces].”

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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