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(News Focus) S. Korea, Japan set aside historic animosities to jointly cope with N.K. threat

2016/11/23 21:40

By Choi Kyong-ae

SEOUL, Nov. 23 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and Japan formally signed the first ever military intelligence pact aimed at allowing the neighboring countries to better cope with evolving North Korean missile and nuclear threats despite historic animosities that have thwarted past attempts to forge closer ties, experts here said Wednesday.

The two countries signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in Seoul to share critical information on the North that can allow policymakers to grasp developments taking place in the reclusive regime. The signing comes less than a month after discussions resumed following a hiatus of four years.

Hours after the signing, the United States and China, which both have vested interests in the region, came up with sharply different stances over the bilateral military pact.

"This agreement will promote greater collaboration and enhance the readiness of the combined Republic of Korea and U.S. forces to respond to the unacceptable threat posed by North Korea," Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, the Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea commander, said in a statement posted on the USFK website.

In contrast, the Chinese foreign ministry said the two countries are "locked in a Cold War mindset" by strengthening military cooperation, which in turn could worsen confrontation on the Korean Peninsula and introduce "new, unstable factors" in the Northeast region.

Most recently, China was infuriated by Seoul's decision in July to deploy an advanced U.S. anti-missile system, known as THAAD, in South Korea by 2017 to defend against incoming missiles from the North. China claimed the system's powerful X-band radar can spy on its military and undermine it national interest.

In this photo, taken on Nov. 23, 2016, and provided by the defense ministry, South Korea's Defense Minister Han Min-koo (R) and Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Yasumasa Nagamine sign the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) at the defense ministry in Seoul. (Yonhap) In this photo, taken on Nov. 23, 2016, and provided by the defense ministry, South Korea's Defense Minister Han Min-koo (R) and Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Yasumasa Nagamine sign the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) at the defense ministry in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Despite China's objection, the pact, from a strategic standpoint, appears to be widely accepted as a necessary step by the South to bolster its defense capabilities against escalating missile threats from its belligerent rival in the north.

Pyongyang has launched some 20 missiles this year alone, and has the goal of developing a nuclear-tipped, long-range missile that could hit parts of the U.S. mainland.

Security experts said the pact will enable effective and real-time military cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo in case of a conflict on the peninsula.

"The U.S. influence in Northeast Asia is waning due to China's rise. To protect its people and assets from attacks by the North, South Korea needs to share intelligence with Japan," Cheong Seong-chang, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, said.

South Koreans have traditionally been uneasy about any military partnership with Japan, as they think Japan has not sincerely apologized for the atrocities it committed in the past while moving to expand the role of its its military as it strives to become a normal state. South Korea was a colony of Japan from 1910 through 1945.

Kim Dong-yeob, a professor at Kyungnam University's North Korean studies school, said, "The U.S. is definitely moving to transfer the leading role in handling North Korean matters in the region to Japan. The GSOMIA deal is part of such efforts."

   By allowing Japan to take a bigger role in the region, the U.S. can focus more on its fight against the Islamic State (IS) and its ongoing South China Sea dispute with China, Kim claimed.

Under the intelligence-sharing pact, which took effect immediately, the two countries can directly exchange military information on Pyongyang without going through the U.S., the defense ministry said.

They will share information regarding nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches by the North and the communist regime's military activities. Japan's satellite photos of North Korea, as well as its information on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, will especially enhance the country's defense capabilities, it said.

This undated captured image from Yonhap News TV shows a ballistic missile about to be fired from a launcher in North Korea. (Yonhap) This undated captured image from Yonhap News TV shows a ballistic missile about to be fired from a launcher in North Korea. (Yonhap)

"Removing the intelligence-sharing constraints would be in South Korea's national interests, since it would enable access to North Korean threat data from Japan's high-tech intelligence satellites, AEGIS ships, and early warning and anti-submarine aircraft," Bruce Klingner, a senior researcher for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center, said in an article he wrote for the Daily Signal in late October.

"South Korea could provide information on the North's missiles detected by long-range air search radar."

   He argued that Washington, Seoul and Tokyo need to integrate their warning sensors and tracking radar to enhance real-time missile defense security for all three countries under the U.S.-led missile defense (MD) system.

South Korea refused to join the MD system. Instead, it has been developing its own missile defense system.

The MD system is a sensitive issue because it can alienate neighboring countries, such as China and Russia, with which South Korea wants to maintain good relations. China, in particular, is Seoul's largest trading partner and a key player in Seoul's drive to get North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

"But South Korea has already entered the MD system, as it has agreed to bring in THAAD and to share military information with Japan," Kim said.

kyongae.choi@yna.co.kr

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