- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Pentagon sharply criticized the government of South Korea President Moon Jae-in on Thursday for canceling a key intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, escalating a bitter dispute between two key U.S. allies.

The surprise collapse of the intelligence pact — at a time when the two countries appeared to be trying to tamp down tensions — is a setback for U.S. efforts to bolster security cooperation in the region, cooperation critical to the Trump administration’s hopes to contain China and strike a nuclear deal with North Korea.

“The Department of Defense expresses our strong concern and disappointment that the Moon administration has withheld its renewal of the [pact],” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn said in a statement.

Lt. Col. Eastburn’s statement suggested U.S. officials are particularly wary about the future of sensitive military-to-military communications between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.

“We strongly believe that the integrity of our mutual defense and security ties must persist despite frictions in other areas of the [South Korea]-Japan relationship,” the statement said. “We’ll continue to pursue bilateral and trilateral defense and security cooperation where possible with Japan and [South Korea].”

South Korean relations with Japan, complicated by economic, cultural and historical factors dating back more than a century, are widely seen to be at their lowest point since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1965. South Koreans still bristle at Japan’s treatment of the country, first as a colony in the early 20th century and then during World War II. The government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe contends Tokyo has long since made reparations for its actions and announced new trade sanctions earlier this summer over what it said were new compensation demands from Seoul.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said in a statement that the decision “was an action that completely misjudged the current security environment in the region and is extremely regrettable,” adding that South Korea’s linking of trade and security was “absolutely unacceptable.”

Victor Cha, Korean affairs analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr. Moon’s move Thursday marked a distinct escalation of the clash, which has seen both sides impost economic and trade sanctions on the other.

The canceled agreement had “allowed for more seamless intelligence sharing among the two allies and the United States regarding the North Korea activities in the region,” Mr. Cha wrote in an analysis Thursday. “Once terminated, the agreement will be hard to reconstitute given domestic political obstacles in the past, particularly in South Korea.”

The feud, he noted, “is beneficial to countries opposed to the U.S. alliance system,” including North Korea, China, and Russia.

The Moon government had been seeking U.S. help in resolving the dispute with Japan, and Seoul and Washington have also been working together to restart stalled talks on stripping North Korea of its nuclear weapons.

Stephen E. Biegun, President Trump’s top envoy for North Korea, has been in Seoul this week attempting to kick-start stalled nuclear talks with Pyongyang. The Trump administration is eager to meet with officials of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime and is just waiting for a response, Mr. Biegun told reporters.

Mr. Biegun’s trip was carefully timed to coincide with the end of U.S.-South Korean military exercises, and a high-level diplomatic source told The Washington Times there are clear indications that “working-level” talks with Mr. Kim’s regime are likely by the end of August or during the first week of September.

The Moon government said it decided to terminate the intelligence pact because of Tokyo’s recent decision to downgrade South Korea’s trade status caused a “grave” change in security cooperation between the countries.

“Under this situation, the government has determined that maintaining the agreement, which was signed for the purpose of exchanging sensitive military intelligence on security, does not serve our national interests,” Kim You-geun, the deputy director of South Korea’s presidential national security office, said in a nationally televised statement.

In recent weeks, Japan has imposed stricter controls on exports to South Korea of three chemicals essential for manufacturing semiconductors and display screens — key export items for South Korea’s high-tech sector — and decided to remove South Korea from a list of countries granted preferential trade status.

The Japanese trade curbs have triggered an outburst of anti-Japan sentiment in South Korea. Many South Korean citizens have rallied in the streets in recent weeks, canceled planned holiday trips to Japan and launched widespread boycotts of Japanese beer, clothes and other products.

— This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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