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Abe: Seoul's Ending of Intelligence Deal Damages Mutual Trust

By William Gallo August 23, 2019

Japan's prime minister said Friday that South Korea's decision to end a military intelligence sharing deal with Tokyo damages mutual trust.

Shinzo Abe, speaking a day after Seoul announced its decision, said Tokyo "will continue to closely coordinate with the U.S. to ensure regional peace and prosperity, as well as Japan's security."

In an escalation of its bitter dispute with Japan, South Korea decided Thursday to scrap its military intelligence sharing agreement with Tokyo, opening a new divide in trilateral security cooperation among the U.S., Japan, and South Korea.

South Korea's presidential Blue House said Thursday it is not in its national interest to continue the deal. Seoul will inform Tokyo of its decision before the Saturday deadline to renew the agreement, the South Korean statement said.

Worsening tensions

The decision will worsen tensions between South Korea and Japan, which are involved in a dispute rooted in Japan's use of forced labor during its colonial occupation of Korea. The move also threatens to further upend security cooperation on U.S. priorities such as North Korea and China.

In announcing its decision, South Korea cited Japan's recent decision to remove Seoul from its list of trusted trade partners.

"The rationale was that a national security problem had arisen due to a breach of trust, yet no concrete evidence to support those allegations was presented," the Blue House statement said.

"Under these circumstances, the Government of the Republic of Korea decided that maintaining this Agreement, which was signed to facilitate the exchange of sensitive military information, does not serve our national interest," it added.

The General Security of Military Information Agreement was signed in November 2016. It's not clear what the immediate impact of its termination will be.

"I hope there is no impact on policies but there will be an impact on military and intelligence operations," says David Maxwell, a former U.S. special forces colonel in the U.S. Army, who served in South Korea. "Information will be shared through the U.S. middle man unless South Korea or Japan makes the situation worse by adding caveats such as the information they provide cannot be shared with a third party."

South Korea's foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, said the decision to withdraw from the agreement is a "separate issue from the South Korea-U.S. alliance," according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency. The decision, she says, was made because of a "trust issue" between Seoul and Tokyo, Yonhap reported.

But the move cannot be separated from Seoul's alliance with Washington, insists Maxwell, now with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

"It damages the national security of all three countries, though South Korea suffers the worst," he said.

"We encourage Japan and Korea to work together to resolve their differences," said a Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn. "I hope they can do this quickly. We are all stronger – and Northeast Asia is safer – when the United States, Japan, and Korea work together in solidarity and friendship. Intel sharing is key to developing our common defense policy and strategy."

Trade moves

Japan, last month, removed South Korea from its "white list" of trusted trade partners and restricted exports of high-tech materials to South Korea. The materials are used to produce semiconductors and displays in smartphones and other electronics that serve as the backbone of South Korea's export-driven economy.

Japan's moves are widely seen as retaliation for recent South Korean court rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate Koreans who were forced to work during Japan's colonial occupation of Korea.

Seoul retaliated earlier this month by removing Japan from its own "white list" of countries that enjoyed minimal trade restrictions.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, last week, signaled a de-escalation in its trade dispute with Japan, saying he would "gladly join hands" with Tokyo if it chooses dialogue.

Historic dispute

The trade dispute is the latest flare-up in tensions rooted in Japan's brutal 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean Peninsula. A major source of friction is how to compensate those forced into labor and sexual slavery in the colonial era.

Japan says the reparations issue was resolved with a 1965 treaty that normalized Japan-South Korea relations. Japan has complained that subsequent South Korean governments have not accepted further Japanese apologies and attempts to make amends.

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