South Korea yesterday decided against scrapping a critical military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan in a dramatic 11th-hour U-turn that will come as a relief to the US.
The pact was due to expire at midnight amid a sharp deterioration in ties between the two democracies and market economies that has alarmed Washington as it seeks to curb the threat from nuclear-armed North Korea.
However, after a flurry of last-ditch diplomacy, Seoul announced that it would “conditionally” suspend the expiry of the agreement with just six hours left on the clock.
Kim You-geun, a national security official at Seoul’s presidential Blue House, confirmed that the Japan–South Korea General Security of Military Information Agreement would not be allowed to lapse at midnight.
“The Japanese government has expressed their understanding,” Kim said, but warned that the pact could still “be terminated at any time.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that three-way coordination between Tokyo, Seoul and Washington was “extremely important,” adding that he believed South Korea had taken its decision from a “strategic point of view.”
However, Japanese Minister of Defense Taro Kono stressed that it was a temporary measure and urged Seoul to extend the pact “in a firm manner.”
Officials were scrambling to arrange bilateral talks between Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi and South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha on the sidelines of a meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Nagoya, Japan.
Seoul had announced the scrapping of the pact in August, as a trade row sparked by historical disputes between the pair spiraled into one of their worst diplomatic spats in years.
Seoul and Tokyo are both major US allies seen as an anchor of stability in a tinderbox region with overbearing China and wayward, nuclear-armed North Korea.
However, their relationship is heavily colored by territorial and historical disputes stemming from Japan’s bitterly resented 35-year colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula, including the use of wartime “comfort women” and forced labor.
“The biggest issue and the root problem is the issue related to former laborers from the Korean Peninsula,” Motegi told reporters. “We continue to strongly demand South Korea to remedy as soon as possible the current situation that violates the international law.”
The agreement, signed in 2016, enabled the two US allies to share military secrets, particularly over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capacity.
The US had frequently urged its two main allies in the region to bury the hatchet, with officials admitting privately that the poor relations have been complicating diplomacy in the region.
Ditching the pact would have been “a huge setback for one of the pillars of East Asia’s security that Japan, South Korea and the United States have established,” said Kenichiro Sasae, a former top Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official and ambassador to the US.
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