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South Korea To Scrap Military Intelligence-Sharing Agreement With Japan

South Korea has announced it will withdraw from a 2016 military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. Here, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, center, and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, trailing at left, walk in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Thursday.
HOW Hwee Young
AFP/Getty Images
South Korea has announced it will withdraw from a 2016 military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan. Here, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, center, and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, trailing at left, walk in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Thursday.

Updated at 3 p.m. ET

South Korea plans to terminate a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, prompting concerns about security cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington as North Korea's nuclear and missile threats loom over the Korean Peninsula.

It's the latest breakdown between Seoul and Tokyo: Earlier this month, Japan removed South Korea from its "whitelist" of favored trade partners, prompting a retaliation in kind.

The Blue House, South Korea's presidential residence in Seoul, announced Thursday that it will end the General Security of Military Information Agreement — a pact pushed by the Obama administration and signed in 2016 as a way for the two countries to exchange valuable information on potential threats posed by North Korea, China and Russia.

"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," Kim You-geun, deputy director of the country's National Security Office, said in a statement.

Seoul's decision was made public before a Saturday deadline that would have automatically renewed the agreement for another year. South Korea appeared to be preparing for an extension, but that changed after Japan abruptly dropped the country from its list of preferred trade partners.

On Thursday, Kim blamed Tokyo for altering their relationship through the downgrade, providing "no concrete evidence" for the decision. Japan has also imposed export controls on products that are essential to South Korea's booming technology industry.

Tokyo said the move was made on national security grounds. But the two countries' disputes also trace back to Japan's colonial occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945. A South Korean Supreme Court ruling last year allowed Korean victims of forced labor during World War II to seek compensation from Japanese firms. South Korea also shut down a Japanese-funded foundation that supported Korean comfort women who were forced into sexual slavery during the war. Both actions incensed the Japanese government.

Japan's downgrading of trade ties with South Korea escalated tensions between the countries and triggered protests outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed that "we will never again lose to Japan." And the prospect of pulling out of the military intelligence-sharing agreement began.

According to South Korea's Joongang Daily newspaper, Seoul and Tokyo have communicated about military intelligence matters at least seven times this year. That includes exchanges on the North's recent spate of short-range missile tests, even after Tokyo's decision to downgrade its trade relationship with Seoul.

Last month, Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono said Tokyo would prefer to continue sharing intelligence, especially on North Korea. On Thursday, Taro said Seoul's decision "completely misreads the security situation in Northeast Asia," according to the Kyodo news agency.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters on Thursday that the decision amounted to a "trust issue." She said Seoul is preparing to explain the decision to both Japan and Washington — and that the decision is "a separate issue from the South Korea-U.S. alliance."

Stressing the importance of the two U.S. allies' relationship with each other, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that they're both "great partners and friends" of the U.S.

"We're disappointed to see the decision that the South Koreans made about that information-sharing agreement," Pompeo said, during a visit to Canada. "We're urging each of the two countries to continue to engage, to continue to have dialogue."

Washington has long sought to build accord between Seoul and Tokyo as another mechanism to confront North Korea and a burgeoning China.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn told NPR that the Department of Defense encourages Japan and South Korea to work together to resolve their differences, and he said he hoped it could be done "quickly."

"We are all stronger — and Northeast Asia is safer — when the United States, Japan, and Korea work together in solidarity and friendship," Eastburn said. "Intel sharing is key to developing our common defense policy and strategy."

Both Pompeo and special envoy on North Korea Steve Biegun have reportedly nudged America's allies to patch up their differences. But critics accuse Washington of letting the bad blood boil between Tokyo and Seoul for too long before intervening.

Foreign policy experts also note that the U.S. faces a challenge in countering the deep veins of nationalism that both Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have mined for their own political gains.

Whether or not there is an immediate response from North Korea, China or Russia, those countries are likely pleased with the growing rift inside the U.S. web of alliances.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Sasha Ingber is a reporter on NPR's breaking news desk, where she covers national and international affairs of the day.