South Korea has said it will scrap an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, drawing a swift protest from Tokyo and deepening a decades-old dispute that has hit trade and undercut security cooperation over North Korea.
South Korea’s Kim You-geun, a deputy director of the presidential National Security Council, said Japan had created a “grave change” in the environment for bilateral security cooperation by removing South Korea’s fast-track export status this month.
“Under this situation, we have determined that it would not serve our national interest to maintain an agreement we signed with the aim of exchanging military information which is sensitive to security,” Kim told a news conference.
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The agreement – called the the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) – had been due for automatic renewal on Saturday. The arrangement was designed to share information on the threat posed by North Korea and its missile and nuclear activities – a threat underlined by the North’s recent launch of a series of short-range ballistic missiles.
Relations between South Korea and Japan began to deteriorate late last year following a diplomatic row over compensation for wartime forced labourers during Japan’s occupation of Korea.
They soured further when Japan tightened its curbs on exports of high-tech materials needed by South Korea’s chip industry, and again this month when Tokyo said it would remove South Korea’s fast-track export status.
The US, which fears weakened security cooperation in the region, expressed dismay. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo said: “We’re disappointed to see the decision the South Koreans made about that information-sharing agreement. We’re urging each of the two countries to continue to engage.”
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“There is no doubt that the shared interests of Japan and South Korea are important and they’re important to the United States of America,” he added.
Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono, criticised Seoul for mixing export controls with security issues. He said: “Given such issues as North Korea, everyone probably understands the importance of this agreement. But this decision was made while linking it to Japan’s review of export controls.
“I cannot help saying they are completely misreading the security environment.“”
He said Tokyo had summoned the South Korean ambassador in protest.
South Korea’s Defence Ministry said that regardless of the end of GSOMIA, it would maintain a “stable” joint defence posture based on a robust alliance with the United States.
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn said the integrity of US mutual defence and security ties needed to be maintained despite frictions in other areas of the relationship between Japan and South Korea.
“The Department of Defense expresses our strong concern and disappointment that the Moon administration has withheld its renewal of ... GSOMIA,” he said, referring to South Korean president Moon Jae-in.
GSOMIA facilitated the sharing of information on North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, which remain despite a series of summits and negotiations with North Korea, said Cho Tae-yong, a former South Korean national security adviser who worked on the deal when it was first signed. “Ending GSOMIA is not only the wrong card to play to press Japan, but it is just not helpful for our security,” he said.
Analysts in the US also saw the move as misguided and some blamed an inward-looking Trump administration for failing to pay sufficient attention to its allies.
“This is what America First gets us – everyone for themselves in lieu of a collaborative network of partners,” Daniel Russel, the State Department’s top diplomat for Asia until early in the Trump administration, told the Nelson Report online newsletter.
“At a time when North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals are rapidly expanding, the abrogation of GSOMIA directly harms US national security,” he said. “And at a time when China’s assertiveness and new capabilities represent an unprecedented challenge, the disintegration of the US-led alliance system is a disaster.”
China and also Russia have become more assertive in the region, flying their first joint military air patrol together in July, which triggered an international incident with South Korea and Japan.