Japan and South Korea formally signed an agreement Wednesday to share military intelligence on North Korea amid Pyongyang’s ramped-up nuclear and missile programs and a swirling influence-peddling scandal threatening to oust South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
The contentious pact, known as the general security of military information agreement (GSOMIA), comes despite growing momentum that could see Park impeached. The final deal was also reached less than a month after talks resumed following a four-year suspension.
South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo and Japan’s ambassador to the South, Yasumasa Nagamine, inked the agreement in Seoul, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.
“Cooperation between Japan and South Korea is becoming more important than ever in the security sphere as North Korea’s nuclear (development) and missiles pose a different level of threat from before,” public broadcaster NHK quoted Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida as telling reporters in Miyagi Prefecture. “Signing of the pact has a very important significance.”
The South’s Defense Ministry called the agreement “necessary,” considering Pyongyang’s nuclear saber-rattling and improvements in its atomic and missile programs. The North has conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 missile launches this year, including some that fell within Japanese territorial waters.
“Since we can now utilize Japan’s intelligence capability to effectively deal with North Korea’s escalating nuclear and missile threats, it will enhance our security interests,” the Ministry said in a statement.
In Beijing, Pyongyang’s main backer, the Foreign Ministry said the deal would only add to soaring tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
“This will add a new unsafe, unstable element for Northeast Asia,” spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing.
In a twist of fate, the deal was also signed on the sixth anniversary of North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in South Korea. The attack caused widespread damage and left four South Koreans dead.
Having access to Japan’s advanced satellite photos of North Korea, as well as its intelligence on Pyongyang’s growing submarine-launched and ground-launched ballistic missile capabilities, are likely to provide a large boost to Seoul’s own defense abilities — including potentially preventing attacks similar to the one on Yeonpyeong Island.
Bong Young-shik, of the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies, said the agreement would play to both countries’ strengths.
“Signing GSOMIA will help combine human sources — South Korea’s strength — and surveillance — Japan’s strength, as the only country that monitors North Korea 24 hours,” Bong said.
Both Asian powers currently go through Washington when sharing defense intelligence under a deal inked in 2014. But once the new one-year pact, which is automatically renewed annually, enters into effect, the two U.S. allies will be able to directly share information.
“If we can obtain military information on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs both from the U.S. and Japan, it will greatly strengthen our ability to counter the North’s provocations,” the Yonhap news agency quoted a Defense Ministry official as saying Wednesday. Japan and South Korea are obliged to keep military information on Pyongyang secret under the pact, without disclosing anything to a third party, the official added.
Frosty ties between Seoul and Tokyo began thawing late last year, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Park announced a formal agreement to settle the dispute over so-called comfort women who were forced to provide sex at Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
But despite the warming ties, the intelligence-sharing pact had faced a number of obstacles, including a wary South Korean public that remains cool toward any military agreement with Tokyo. Japan colonized the Korean Peninsula from 1910-45, and Seoul has accused it of attempting to whitewash this history and other past aggressions.
South Korean opposition forces have also lashed out at the deal, calling it “a rush job” that failed to take into account public opinion, with three parties threatening to submit a joint motion to dismiss the defense minister.
Critics in the opposition have described the pact as a distraction by the Park administration as scores of protesters have poured into the South Korean capital over the last month to demand that she step down for her alleged role in a corruption scandal.
But Yonsei University’s Bong predicted the deal’s timing would work out well for Park and her administration.
“(The) timing of signing GSOMIA is, paradoxically, good,” Bong said, noting that the other scandal enveloping Park had provided some cover for the controversial deal.
“The opposition parties did not want to allow the Blue House to frame it as the administrative branch responsibly dealing with national security and urgent threats from North Korea vs. opposition parties that are mainly interested in pressuring President Park and riding on anti-Japanese sentiment.”