Intelligence pact with Tokyo is at risk, says Seoul

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Intelligence pact with Tokyo is at risk, says Seoul

A top Korean official said Friday that “all options” are open on the fate of a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan.

As Korea tries to deal with potentially crippling export restrictions by Japan, liberal politicians are starting to demand that the Moon Jae-in administration respond by scrapping the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia).

“We will scrutinize Gsomia objectively,” a senior presidential aide said Friday. “And see qualitatively how helpful that is to us. I know some people tend to emphasize quantitative aspects in terms of a number of exchanges that took place. You also have to look at the qualitative aspect. We are going to be taking a very objective look at it.”

When President Moon met with leaders of five political parties on Thursday, at least two politicians - Justice Party Chairwoman Sim Sang-jeung and Chairman of the Party for Democracy and Peace Chung Dong-young - urged the government to reconsider its participation in the pact, seen as a rare symbol of trust between Korea and Japan and a key element in trilateral cooperation among the two countries and the United States.

Chung Eui-yong, director of national security who accompanied Moon to the meeting Thursday, responded that Korea could reconsider the Gsomia with Japan.

“It is our current position to maintain the agreement, but we can reconsider it depending on the situation,” Chung was quoted as saying by Sim.

Jolted by Chung’s comment, Washington stressed Thursday that the trade row between its two Asian allies must not jeopardize trilateral security cooperation in Northeast Asia.

The United States reacted quickly to stress that it fully supports Gsomia, calling it key to achieving the denuclearization of North Korea. Washington’s immediate reaction was a change from its previous distancing of itself from the trade row, triggered by Japan’s decision on July 1 to tighten export restrictions on three materials crucial for semiconductor and display production in Korea.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department told the JoongAng Ilbo on Thursday that the Korea-Japan Gsomia is “an important tool in our shared efforts to maintain peace and security in the region and achieve the FFVD [final, fully verified denuclearization] of North Korea.” The spokesman said the United States “fully supports” the agreement between Korea and Japan, adding that it “demonstrates the maturity of the bilateral defense relationship” and “improves our ability to coordinate trilaterally.”

Although the U.S. State Department had not responded to the JoongAng Ilbo’s earlier inquiries about the possible scrapping of the Korea-Japan bilateral military intelligence sharing pact, it sent the statement immediately after Chung’s comment was made public.

“The Republic of Korea and Japan cooperate both bilaterally and trilaterally with the United States,” the spokesman said. “The ability to share information about common threats is an important part of that cooperation.”

Korea signed the agreement with Japan in November 2016 during the conservative Park Geun-hye administration, despite fierce protests by liberal political parties and civic groups. The accord, which went into effect immediately, has been renewed every year automatically. If one of the two countries wants to scrap the pact, it must inform the other 90 days in advance.

Washington told visiting Seoul officials last week that it doesn’t want the economic dispute to damage security cooperation, a senior Foreign Ministry official told the JoongAng Ilbo.

Washington appears to be worried that the bilateral diplomatic row could weaken trilateral cooperation in the region. According to government sources, John Bolton, the national security adviser, and Matthew Pottinger, senior director for Asian affairs for the White House National Security Council, are expected to visit Japan and Korea next week.

The main agenda for their visits is not North Korea’s denuclearization, sources also said.

Japan also seems eager to maintain the pact. In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo last week, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said bilateral relations are in a serious crisis, but Tokyo wants to continue cooperation with Seoul on key issues including North Korea.

During Thursday’s meeting, Justice Party Chairwoman Sim urged the government to consider stopping the extension of the Korea-Japan Gsomia if Japan removes Korea from the so-called white list of countries entitled to fast export processing for strategic goods.

Sim said that would mean Japan does not consider Korea a reliable security partner and that Korea must respond by scrapping the bilateral intelligence-sharing accord.

Another participant in the meeting, Chairman Chung Dong-young of the Party for Democracy and Peace, made a similar argument.

According to participants in the meeting, President Moon did not make any specific comment on the issue.

“Because the government cannot be the first to say that it will consider the option of scrapping Gsomia, I suggested the National Assembly must issue the threat,” Sim told reporters on Thursday.

“Moon and other presidential aides did not say much about our recommendation, but they all agreed that it is an important issue.”

Chung told CBS radio on Friday that political leaders, particularly himself and Sim, recommended the government not extend the intelligence-sharing agreement next month, but Hwang Kyo-ahn, chairman of the conservative main opposition Liberty Korea Party, disagreed.

Hwang was prime minister when the pact was signed in 2016.

As the fate of the Gsomia generated controversy at home and abroad, the Blue House tried to calm the situation. “I want to clarify that the Gsomia is not linked to Korea’s countermeasures to Japan’s economic retaliations,” Ko Min-jung, presidential spokeswoman, said in the morning. “The official, current stance of the government is that we are keeping the agreement.”

The controversy, however, was reignited in the afternoon when a top Blue House official said all options are open about the fate of the pact.

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