SEOUL – South Korea is not ready to expand military ties with Japan even though cooperation between the two U.S. allies is a deterrent to North Korea, South Korea’s defense minister said.
South Korea put a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan on ice in 2012 when a public outcry among South Koreans halted its signing at the last minute. Relations have since soured further with South Korea insisting Japan do more to atone for its 35-year occupation of the peninsula and the sexual slavery of Korean women during the early 20th century.
“Strategic coordination and cooperation between South Korea and Japan is very important considering the grave security situation” on the Korean Peninsula, South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo said in a written response to questions. But talks on agreements to bolster intelligence and logistics coordination “should be approached after enough time spent on securing people’s understanding and support, considering the issue of Japan’s historical perceptions.”
South Korea said Monday that a planned visit by the intelligence chief of Japan’s Defense Ministry has been postponed due to an unspecified “disagreement.” The visit would have been a routine exchange and was not linked to the potential intelligence-sharing pact, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said at a briefing.
The strains between South Korea and Japan — which also involve a dispute over rocky outcrops in the waters between them — have complicated the U.S. economic and strategic rebalance in the Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. has failed to get the two countries to align on countering China’s military assertions and the tensions have also overshadowed combined efforts to contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
President Barack Obama coaxed President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe into a three-way meeting last year on the sidelines of a nuclear summit, but Abe and Park have yet to hold a direct summit.
Han met with Defense Minister Gen Nakatani on May 30 at a security forum in Singapore — the first talks between the defense chiefs of the two countries since 2011. It ended with an agreement to “gradually” improve military exchanges, according to South Korea’s defense ministry.
In December, South Korea and Japan signed an agreement to allow them to only share intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs via the U.S.
On Monday, North Korea said leader Kim Jong Un watched a test of newly deployed anti-ship rockets, just over a month after the regime claimed its navy successfully launched a ballistic missile from a submarine.
South Korea dismissed the May test-firing as an “ejection test” while it acknowledged North Korea may be a few years from building a submarine that could fire ballistic missiles. That capability would add to the list of so-called asymmetrical threats such as long-range artillery, ballistic missiles and cyber-hacking units that North Korea operates in addition to its 1.2 million troops.
“Because we have been dealing effectively with North Korea’s asymmetrical capabilities, I don’t think there is need to drastically increase spending,” Han said of South Korea’s defense budget, which stands at 37.5 trillion won ($33.5 billion) this year, a 5 percent increase.
The country, however, will revise its plans to build its own anti-ballistic missile system and preemptive strike capabilities to better deal with North Korea’s potential submarine missiles, he said.
South Korea has beefed up monitoring along the western sea border with North Korea, locating more offensive weapons such as Cobra helicopters and Spike missiles in the area, Han said.
“We have set up plans to strike the source of North Korea’s provocation as well as its command and support forces,” he said.
Han described Kim’s regime as “unstable.” The North Korean leader recently purged defense minister Hyon Yong Chol, the latest removal of a high-ranking official since Kim took power in late 2011. The purge may have involved an execution with an anti-aircraft gun, according to the National Intelligence Service in Seoul.
Han said North Korea’s nuclear threat has raised a military debate on whether South Korea should let the U.S. deploy a THAAD ballistic missile defense system on its soil.
China opposes the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in South Korea, saying the Lockheed Martin-developed system would spark an arms race.
If the U.S. requests discussions on deploying THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in its bases, South Korea will make a decision based on its assessment of “military usefulness and the national interest,” Han said.