National / Politics

South Korea and Japan need to ease up on their spat, ex-defense chief Itsunori Onodera says

by Isabel Reynolds and Emi Nobuhiro

Bloomberg

Japan and South Korea need time to cool down from a feud hurting security ties, former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said of the dispute that the Trump administration warns could damage its regional alliance network.

Onodera, who has served two stints as defense minister under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said “time will resolve it,” indicating to leaders who have shown no signs of backing down that returning to an even keel was in everyone’s interests.

Relations between Tokyo and Seoul have plumbed new depths over the past few months, as lingering resentment over Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula resurfaced. Disputes have damaged trade and tourism, as well as military ties between the two U.S. allies.

“We need to start by cooling down so that things can get back to how they were,” Onodera said in an interview at his offices in Tokyo Wednesday.

South Korea announced last month it will withdraw from a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan in November, prompting U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver to warn Seoul that its decision threatened U.S. security interests. Seoul has asked the U.S. to tone down its criticism and a South Korean presidential security aide said the move presented the country with a chance to enhance its military alliance with the U.S.

Onodera said while the move wouldn’t immediately affect Japan’s ability to deal with North Korean missile launches, it would hamper longer-term analysis and damage regional security. South Korea should be concerned about the effect on its own alliance with the U.S., he said.

“The problem is that it may have given the erroneous impression to the rest of the world that Japan-U.S.-South Korea cooperation is shaky, or falling apart,” Onodera said. “An inaccurate message may have gotten through to China and Russia,” he added.

The General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, was signed by Japan and South Korea in November 2016. While the agreement doesn’t require the exchange of intelligence, and both countries are part of a similar three-way pact with the U.S., the deal was significant because it demonstrated their ability to cooperate independently from Washington.

North Korea has stirred tensions in the region with a series of tests since May of its new short-range ballistic missile, which weapons experts said is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and could hit all of South Korea and parts of Japan.

South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said in a speech at the Seoul Defense Dialogue on Thursday that Seoul will “remain patient” in the way it reacts to the recent launches by its neighbor.

Onodera said he did not understand South Korea’s linking of the GSOMIA pact with Japan’s removal of South Korea from a list of trusted countries that benefit from preferential trade treatment. South Korea has also vowed to strike Japan from its own similar list of trade partners, a decision that Tokyo officials are protesting.

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