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Japan fears S. Korea's scrapping of military info pact could hinder response to N. Korea

Foreign Minister Taro Kono, left, shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha at a hotel in the outskirts of Beijing before a meeting on Aug. 21, 2019. (Mainichi/Shinichi Akiyama)

TOKYO -- Japan is worried that South Korea's decision to cancel the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) could deal a serious blow to cooperation between Tokyo, Washington and Seoul in responding to North Korea's provocative acts.

After lodging a protest with South Korean Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-pyo on the evening of Aug. 22, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters, "(South Korea) has completely misjudged the security environment. We'd like to firmly protest against the move."

A grim-faced Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left his office on Aug. 22 without responding to questions from reporters about the move.

South Korea's decision came as a shock to Japan, which had believed that Seoul would continue security cooperation with Tokyo even though the two countries are in a bitter dispute over the issue of wartime forced labor and other matters.

In a foreign ministerial meeting on the outskirts of Beijing on Aug. 21, Kono urged Seoul to renew the agreement. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also reportedly requested that the agreement be extended.

Japanese government officials are disappointed at the latest move all the more because observations had been growing within the Japanese government that South Korea would not be able to cancel the deal because the United States is particularly interested in the issue, according to an individual linked to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

North Korea has launched short-range ballistic and other missiles eight times since this past May.

Land-based radars in Japan cannot detect the direction of the missiles shortly after they are launched, according to a senior Defense Ministry official. On the other hand, South Korean radars cannot fully trace the course of North Korean missiles that plunge into parts of the Sea of Japan that are closer to Japan or into the Pacific Ocean.

Information from both countries is therefore indispensable to confirm the complete course of missiles launched by Pyongyang.

According to the South Korean government, the two countries exchanged security information on 29 occasions after they signed the GSOMIA in 2016. In particular, the two countries have intensively exchanged information on North Korean's firing of missiles.

Although Tokyo has not disclosed the details of its exchange of intelligence with Seoul, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya acknowledged on Aug. 22, "It's true that Japan and South Korea have exchanged information on a series of missile launches."

Some Japanese government officials have played down the impact of Seoul's latest move. "It won't affect us as long as Japan and the United States sufficiently exchange relevant information. It's South Korea that will have trouble," said a high-ranking official of the government.

However, former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani has dismissed such optimism. "If a missile is launched, relevant divisions among the Japanese, South Korean and U.S. governments comprehensively ascertain the details of the launch and where the missile will land in preparing to intercept it. The system can't function (with cancellation of the Japan-South Korea GSOMIA)," he said.

Another former defense minister expressed concerns that Japan would not be able to respond swiftly to North Korea's firing of missiles if it were forced to exchange information with South Korea via the United States.

Russia, China and North Korea could take advantage of the decreased cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul. In late July, Russian aircraft violated Japan's airspace around Shimane Prefecture's Takeshima Islands, also claimed by South Korea. Speculations spread within the Japanese government that by doing so, Russia was testing whether intelligence cooperation between Japan and South Korea was functioning.

The worsening of bilateral cooperation following Seoul's scrapping of the GSOMIA could fuel military provocations by North Korea.

Nakatani pointed out that South Korea is opposing the wrong country. "Which country should they stand up against? Japan, the United States and South Korea have no choice but to cooperate in responding to the threat posed by North Korea. This basic point isn't being understood," he said.

(Japanese original by Yusuke Tanabe and Shu Furukawa, Political News Department)

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