South Korea to scrap military intel-sharing pact with Japan

South Korea said Thursday it will terminate its military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, sparking protest from both Tokyo and Washington amid an intensifying trade and diplomatic dispute between the Asian neighbours.

The decision comes with the countries at loggerheads following a run of South Korean court rulings against Japanese firms, requiring them to pay for forced labour during World War II.

“Maintaining this agreement, which was signed to facilitate the exchange of sensitive military information, does not serve our national interest,” said Kim You-geun, a national security official at Seoul’s presidential Blue House.

In a series of tit-for-tat measures, Japan had earlier this month removed South Korea from a so-called “white list” of countries that receive preferential export treatment.

Tokyo had done so citing security concerns and a loss of trust with South Korea, but did not provide “concrete evidence to support those allegations”, said Kim.

This caused “fundamental changes” to the nature of defence cooperation, he added.

Seoul’s decision to end the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) marks a low point in relations between Japan and South Korea and was met with concern from their key ally the United States.

“We’re disappointed to see the decision that the South Koreans made about that information-sharing agreement,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters following South Korea‘s announcement.

“We hope each of those two countries can begin to put that relationship back in exactly the right place,” Pompeo said, adding that he’d spoken to his South Korean counterpart and urged both sides to “continue to have dialogue.”

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono called the move “a complete misjudgement of the current regional security environment, and it is extremely regrettable.”

“We cannot accept the claims by the South Korean side and we will strongly protest against the South Korean government,” Kono said, adding that Tokyo had summoned the South Korean ambassador.

Both Japan and South Korea are market economies and US allies faced with an overbearing China and nuclear-armed North Korea.

But their relationship continues to be heavily affected by Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

The pair’s worst squabble in years, which has seen many South Koreans boycotting Japanese goods and trips there, has alarmed Washington.

Pompeo held talks with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts this month in Bangkok.

However the brief meeting appeared to have been frosty as the trio — with Pompeo in the middle — did not speak or shake hands when they posed for photos afterwards.

– ‘Historical dispute’ –

The termination of the military pact comes after Seoul announced earlier this month it would remove Tokyo from its list of trusted trading partners, reciprocating an identical decision by Japan.

That followed Tokyo‘s imposition last month of tough restrictions on exports of chemicals used for semiconductors and displays crucial to South Korean tech titans including Samsung.

On Thursday Seoul made it clear it believes Tokyo‘s export restrictions are motivated by “historical dispute”.

The South Korean government “had to reconsider the effectiveness of GSOMIA as Japan has applied historical issues to the security matter”, an unnamed presidential official told reporters.

The dispute has raised concerns over potential implications for the countries’ security cooperation in the face of North Korean missile tests, and the possible impact on global supply chains.

The intelligence pact was signed in November 2016 with Washington’s backing in response to Pyongyang’s missile launches and nuclear tests, to better coordinate the gathering of information about the reclusive state.

The accord had been renewed every year and Seoul’s decision to end it comes as a surprise, as the country was largely expected to maintain security cooperation with Japan despite the ongoing row.

Five things to know about Japan-South Korea intel-sharing pact
Tokyo (AFP) Aug 23, 2019 -
South Korea‘s decision to scrap a key intelligence-sharing pact with Japan has far-reaching geopolitical implications and shows the two neighbours are still struggling to come to terms with a bloody history.

Here are five things to know about the decision:

– What happened? –

To general surprise, South Korea announced late Thursday it would not renew a pact with Japan to share military intelligence, called the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).

Under the pact, originally signed in 2016, the two US allies directly share military secrets, particularly over North Korea‘s nuclear and missile capacity.

Seoul said it was no longer in its national interest to continue sharing confidential information with its neighbour during a sharp deterioration in ties. Tokyo said it would “strongly” protest the move and urged South Korea to reconsider.

– Why is it important? –

Japan’s Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya said the pact was vital for regional security, pointing in particular to the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea.

“During the series of North Korean missile launches, there was a thorough and careful exchange of information between both sides,” Iwaya told reporters Friday.

Scrapping the pact would only make bilateral defence cooperation harder, he said.

Without the agreement, both militaries may find it more difficult to track missile launches from the regime in Pyongyang, said Tobias Harris, an analyst at the Teneo consultancy.

Harris noted that Seoul’s move came “just as North Korea has ramped up tests of short-range ballistic missiles.”

Some analysts have played down the move, however, noting the United States previously coordinated the flow of sensitive information between the pair and this practice would simply resume.

– What is the regional and global impact? –

South Korea‘s decision shows trust between the two countries has “crumbled”, the left-leaning Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun said, adding that it would only benefit Washington’s regional rivals.

“Discord between Japan, the US, and South Korea might be welcomed by China, Russia and North Korea,” the paper said.

“They might seize the opportunity and drive further wedges” between the three allies.

Harris said the move was “also a blow to the United States, which has looked to its allies to help shore up its position in a rapidly changing Asia.”

“The widening rift not only could complicate efforts to respond to North Korea if the diplomatic process breaks down… but could also hinder future efforts to strengthen coordination between the US and other democracies in the region,” Harris said.

It is a “significant step in the deterioration of South Korea‘s relationship with Japan” and indicates a “broad shift” in how the two countries see their regional role, added the analyst.

– How did it come to this? –

Bitter memories of Japan’s brutal colonialisation of Korea between 1910 and 1945 have long cast a dark cloud over bilateral relations.

Japan says a 1965 treaty that normalised relations with a significant financial contribution effectively settled all reparation claims.

In past months, a string of South Korean court rulings ordering Japanese firms to compensate forced labour victims has infuriated Japan.

And bilateral ties went into tailspin in July after Tokyo said Seoul was not properly handling sensitive imports and took the country off a list of nations that enjoyed streamlined export control procedures.

This enraged South Korea, which hit back with similar moves targeting Japan, before cancelling the intelligence-sharing pact.

– What happens next? –

Bilateral ties are unlikely to come out of the deep freeze in the near future, said Harris, bracing for “reduced levels of trade, investment, and tourism, and enduring mistrust over history, national security, and territorial issues.”

Anti-Japan sentiment continues to grow in South Korea, with protests and boycotts of Japanese goods and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may come under domestic pressure to retaliate.

The US appeared to be taken by surprise, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo using the unusually strong term “disappointed,” noted Choi Kang, vice-president of the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, a private think tank in Seoul.

“But there is also the sentiment that the Trump administration didn’t do enough as a mediator to help the two sides find a middle ground,” said Choi.

“The US can propose three-way talks in seeking to find a compromise but it will be a long time,” added the analyst.

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