- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2019

TOKYO — In an eleventh-hour reversal, South Korea’s government said Friday that it would allow a key military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan to stay alive for another three months.

The decision by Seoul to back off its threat to kill the General Security of Military Information Agreement followed an aggressive push by the Trump administration to save the pact amid warnings from experts that allowing it to dissolve would undercut Washington’s standing as a regional leader and likely be exploited by China and North Korea.

South Korean officials had said Thursday that they would let the pact expire at midnight Friday unless Tokyo made a major overture — specifically by withdrawing export restrictions it leveled against Seoul earlier this year.

SEE ALSO: South Korea at last minute reverses plan to nix intelligence deal with Japan

There were no indications Friday that Japanese officials had come through with such an overture and it was not immediately clear what had caused the South Korean government’s sudden shift in posture.

Tension over the potential collapse of the intelligence sharing pact has come to a head at a time of rising uncertainty for the U.S. and its allies. Seoul and Washington are feuding over President Trump’s demand for a fivefold increase in South Korean payments for U.S. military deployment in the country and a report, strongly denied by the Pentagon, that Mr. Trump is considering withdrawing thousands of U.S. troops from South Korea.

The U.S.-North Korean diplomatic track also appears to be at an impasse. Pyongyang says Washington has until the end of the year to offer economic sanctions relief if it wants to resume talks on reducing the North’s nuclear programs.

The potentially looming collapse of the agreement between South Korea and Japan is part of a larger division. Washington has long sought to pull together northeast Asia’s two biggest democracies to contain North Korea and counter China’s rising regional clout.

“This agreement is a kind of symbol of trilateral cooperation between the U.S., Japan and South Korea,” said Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow with the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. Prior to Friday’s developments, Mr. Watanabe said Pyongyang and Beijing were poised to take advantage of the imminent collapse of the intelligence sharing agreement.

“What China could do is long term,” Mr. Watanabe told The Washington Times.

He said Beijing is likely to try to bank on Washington’s failure to contain the deep economic and historical strains between its two vital allies. The Trump administration’s trade issues with both countries only exacerbates the diplomatic difficulties.

China is now approaching South Korea and Japan by saying, ‘You know, the U.S. leadership is in decline — that the current leadership in Washington is not supporting free trade or free economy,” Mr. Watanabe said. “And so China is interested in presenting the narrative that they are the leader on trade and economy.”

A more immediate effect, he said, is that North Koreans “could exploit the situation by escalating their military adventurism.”

Devin Stewart, a senior fellow with the Eurasia Group Foundation, agreed that the General Security of Military Information Agreement “is politically meaningful in that it shows a more united front against any threats from North Korea and China.”

A failure of the agreement may affect U.S.-North Korean nuclear talks as well, he said.

“Pyongyang has stated several times that it needs another summit with Trump by the end of the year; otherwise, it will seek a ‘new path,’” he said. “Given Trump’s tumultuous situation domestically with the impeachment process underway, the administration may not have the bandwidth to meet Pyongyang’s desired deadline. A weaker relationship between the U.S., [South Korea] and Japan could therefore add to the level of belligerence North Korea is willing to pursue if it does in fact go for a ‘new path.’”

South Korean officials appeared late Thursday to be seeking either an interim solution or a path to talks with Japan if the 3-year-old intelligence pact does expire.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in told reporters in Seoul that his government will try “till the very last moment” to keep the intelligence sharing agreement alive. The South Korean Yonhap News Agency reported that Kim Hyun-chong, a deputy chief of the presidential national security office, made an unannounced trip to Washington this week, presumably to discuss the impasse.

Japan and South Korea have a tortured past reaching back to Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Many South Koreans still bristle at Japan’s treatment of the country, first as a colony and then during World War II.

Successive U.S. administrations have sought to ease the historical tensions, in part by drawing Tokyo and Seoul into a deepening military-to-military relationship. Many saw the intelligence sharing pact as a centerpiece of those efforts.

South Korea announced its decision to pull out of the pact in August after Japan placed curbs on exports that were vital to South Korea’s world-class technology sector.

Japan said South Korea was not doing enough to prevent proprietary Japanese technology from being shared with China, but the decision was widely seen as retaliation for what Tokyo said were Seoul’s failures to put historical grievances to rest and to allow fresh legal claims dating back to the occupation period to proceed.

The government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe contends Tokyo has made reparations for its actions as a colonial and World War II power. The Abe administration has accused the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in of trying to revive historical grievances for domestic political gain.

Tensions escalated late last year when Tokyo accused a South Korean navy destroyer of targeting a Japanese aircraft with fire control radar. The incident triggered acrimony and frustration among South Koreans, who said the Trump administration appeared to have sided with the Abe government in the clash.

Analysts say the Moon administration knew full well that Washington would be upset by the cancellation of the intelligence pact but went ahead because of its frustration with the Trump administration on other fronts — most notably Mr. Trump’s demand that South Korea pay substantially more for the roughly 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country.

The administration has placed similar pressure on Tokyo. A recent report by Foreign Policy said the U.S. demanded quadruple payments for some 50,000 troops stationed in Japan.

Mr. Watanabe said such demands could undercut U.S. hopes for a stronger trilateral alliance.

Mr. Trump is trying to reach some kind of deal with North Korea … but as a U.S. leader, he doesn’t have any strategic sketch for the region,” Mr. Watanabe said. “He wants to reduce military expenses as much as possible to reach some achievement for the U.S. taxpayer and win the domestic vote before the 2020 U.S. election.

“Of course, that’s the nature of democracy, so I cannot blame too much, but the timing is really bad,” he added.

Retired South Korean Army Lt. Gen. Chun In-bum was more critical. “The U.S. should have intervened sooner,” he said.

“At present, neither Moon nor Abe is capable of a compromise unless they can point to U.S. ‘pressure,’” the retired general said. “If they turn back on their own, they will face political backlash from which it will be difficult to recover. Neither of them can do the right thing.”

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

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