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Japan, S. Korea sign intelligence-sharing pact over N. Korean threat

The Japanese and South Korean governments on Nov. 23 signed a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) that had been shelved for four years due to opposition in South Korea.

The governments of the two countries appear to have sped up their conclusion of the agreement, which provides rules for sharing defense intelligence, due to the heightened threat from North Korea, which has pressed ahead with nuclear and missile development.

Noting the North's advancements in missile technology and the miniaturization of nuclear warheads, the Japanese government this year repeatedly called on South Korea to conclude the GSOMIA at an early stage. The United States has also sought to build up collaboration between Japan, itself and South Korea -- a stance that gave the agreement momentum.

Japan is particularly concerned about the threat of simultaneous missile launches that are difficult to intercept, as well as movable launch pads, which obscure the warning signs. In its fourth nuclear test in January this year, North Korea announced that it had successfully conducted a hydrogen bomb test. It has also repeatedly tested its intermediate-range Musudan missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), going ahead with its fifth launch in September this year.

"A threat on a different dimension from before is looming," a Japanese government source said.

At the end of 2014, the governments of Japan, the United States and South Korea concluded an agreement to share North Korean nuclear and missile information, but Japan and South Korea, which did not have a GSOMIA, could not directly interact and instead needed to go through the United States.

The Nov. 23 conclusion of the GSOMIA provides a legal basis for quickly sharing information between Tokyo and Seoul. It is expected that the countries' ability to intercept missiles will be enhanced through such measures as simultaneously sharing radar data from vessels equipped with the Aegis Combat System, which can pick up North Korea's ballistic missiles.

Tokyo and Seoul will also be able to share information other than that relating to nuclear and missile developments. The Japanese Ministry of Defense hopes to obtain information on any U.S.-South Korea operation plans in the event of an emergency situation on the Korean Peninsula. If military confusion displaced a large number of people including Japanese citizens, Japan would need to collaborate with the United States and South Korea, but it had been difficult for Japan to grasp specific moves taken by the United States and South Korea before the formulation of the GSOMIA. With advancements in the sharing of information, it is believed training and cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea that more closely matches actual combat situations will become possible.

For Japan, the conclusion of a GSOMIA is a symbol of improving relations with South Korea on the heels of an agreement between the two countries in December last year on settling the issue of so-called "comfort women." Wary of allegations of intervention in state affairs that have rocked the administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Japan refrained from calling for an early conclusion of the GSOMIA after the allegations surfaced to avoid stirring public opinion in South Korea.

According to an official at the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Japan sees the conclusion of the agreement as a sign of Park's "strong will." With U.S. President-elect Donald Trump's policy toward Asia still unclear, the Japanese government apparently hopes that the expansion of cooperation between Japan and South Korea will encourage positive involvement from the United States.

The threat posed by North Korea is even more of a pressing issue for South Korea than it is for Japan. On Nov. 23, the South Korean Ministry of National Defense underscored the significance of the GSOMIA, releasing a comment that Japanese information sources such as radar, submarines and patrol aircraft could monitor what is happening on the Sea of Japan and would be of great assistance in obtaining information on North Korea's SLBMs.

The threat posed by North Korea's mobile ballistic missiles and SLMBs and the possibility of small nuclear warheads being fitted to them is becoming more realistic.

The South Korean government steered toward concluding the GSOMIA after the fifth nuclear test by North Korea in September this year, according to Japanese and South Korean diplomatic sources. The South's Ministry of National Defense, however, says that South Korea will not get caught up in any regional missile defense system. It underscored its position of promoting its own Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) system, separate from a Japan-U.S. system. If South Korea participates in the Japan-U.S. missile defense system, a backlash from China is certain. It thus appears that South Korea is taking China into consideration.

It was on Oct. 27 -- two days after South Korean President Park was forced to apologize over allegations of a close friend's intervention in state affairs -- that it was announced South Korea would resume negotiations with Japan over the GSOMIA. With South Korean prosecutors continuing their investigation, it appears that the Park administration may not be able to avoid being sapped of its power. It is thought that the prime minister and others in the government will act on behalf of the president, but it remains unknown if the new framework for Japan-South Korea security cooperation will get off to a smooth start.

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