Bipartisan anguish over secret intelligence pact

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Bipartisan anguish over secret intelligence pact

Ruling and opposition lawmakers alike howled at news that a sensitive intelligence-sharing pact among Seoul, Tokyo and Washington was furtively signed by the South Korean Ministry of National Defense three days before it was supposed to be.

In the pact, Seoul agrees to share information on North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats with the United States and Japan.

According to the Defense Ministry on Monday, the trilateral military agreement went into effect that day after a memorandum of understanding was signed by Korean Vice Defense Minister Baek Seung-joo, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work and Vice Defense Minister Masanori Nishi last week.

On Friday, Ryu Je-seung, a deputy minister for national defense policy, told reporters that the information-sharing pact was to be “signed and also simultaneously take effect on Dec. 29, and that the final contents have not been agreed upon yet.”

The National Assembly also received the same information Friday.

Han Min-koo, Korea’s defense minister, reported to a National Assembly defense committee meeting Monday that the pact was actually signed by the United States on Dec. 23, by Japan on Dec. 26 and “on the afternoon of Dec. 26” by Korea. “Because time was needed for administrative procedures,” he added, “it took effect Dec. 29.”

Military intelligence sharing with Tokyo has always been a sensitive issue because it evokes Korea’s past history of colonization by the Japanese, and the lack of transparency in the process is expected to ignite further political controversy in Seoul.

Korean lawmakers did not appreciate being blindsided and voiced criticism that the trilateral military pact had been signed in secret. Moon Hee-sang, the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy’s interim chairman, said the move by the Defense Ministry “was a ploy to avoid opposition from the National Assembly and the people.”

He added, “The government needs to halt the agreement from taking effect,” which can appear to “legitimize Japan becoming a military power and attaining collective self-defense.”

Defense Minister Han said technical difficulties like time differences made the announcement problematic, as well as the fact that a U.S. official visited Japan and then Korea with the agreement to have it signed “instead of the three countries gathering together in one spot to sign it.”

He apologized, saying, “I am sorry about the misunderstanding caused by not being able to report to the [National Assembly] ahead of time because of procedural issues.”

The nine-article military agreement establishes for the first time a mechanism for the three countries to “voluntarily share classified information” on the North Korean missile and nuclear threats.

It is an arrangement that “will allow for a more effective response to future provocations and during contingencies,” according to the U.S. Department of Defense in a statement on Sunday. The Pentagon added that the agreement does not impose any “new legal obligations.”

The United States already had a separate bilateral intelligence-sharing agreement with Seoul that dates back to 1987. It has had one with Tokyo since 2007.

Through the agreement, Washington will play an intermediary role. Korea and Japan would only share information through the United States.

This takes into account potential domestic backlash, such as in June 2012 when an intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo fell through at the last minute because of protests in Seoul.

Military analysts say the quiet signing of the trilateral pact was a gambit to prevent the pact from falling through over domestic protests.

The Defense Ministry announced in April plans to seal a new trilateral agreement to share intelligence on Pyongyang.

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]




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