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Blind Men: The End of the South Korea-Japan Pact Undermines the Pursuit of Understanding the North Korean Threats



SEOUL / TOKYO (Reuters) – South Korea's decision to abolish intelligence sharing pact with Japan could damage North Korean threat understanding efforts and potentially weaken its missile launch capability, they claim employees and analysts.

FILE PHOTO: Police Officer Standing Near National Flags of Japan and South Korea at the Hotel where the South Korean Embassy in Japan is holding a reception to mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of ties between Seoul and Tokyo, Tokyo , June 22, 2015. REUTERS / Toru Hanai / File Photo

Thursday's announcement by South Korea that it would withdraw from the agreement provoked rapid protest from Tokyo and heightened neighbors' animosity over history and trade. The agreement was to be automatically renewed on Saturday.

Seoul's decision not to renew the General Information Security Agreement (GSOMIA) will complicate a concerted effort to open and evaluate North Korea's missile program, as they both now have to rely on information sharing through the United States, their common ally.

Much of the shared intelligence concerns long-term threats or analysis following the events of North Korea's missiles, and officials emphasize that real-time missile forces do not rely on the agreement.

But analysts say the repeal of the pact could lead to more acute problems if a crisis erupts, and both sides have no basis for rapid information sharing.

The pact is important as a cornerstone of tripartite cooperation with the United States, said Yang Wuk, a senior fellow at Korea's Defense and Security Forum in Seoul.

"When it comes to North Korea, it's like three blind people touching an elephant to see what it is," Yang said.

"Sharing intelligence is meant to paint the big picture with the help of different assets and channels, but now one of the men is gone."

UNDERSTANDING NORTH KOREA

Less cooperation between South Korea and Japan may lead to a less detailed intelligence analysis on North Korea, analysts say.

For example, Japan sometimes provides information about long-range missile tests from North Korea that landed far from South Korea.

Japan, for its part, will be denied access to Seoul's intelligence on North Korea, collected through human networks as defectors and agents around the world, a South Korean military official told Reuters.

"It is very painful for Japan to lose information related to North Korea obtained through human intelligence," said retired Japanese Admiral Yoji Koda.

There have been 29 cases of information traded between South Korea and Japan since they signed the pact in 2016, says Kim Jong Dai, a South Korean lawmaker who received data from the military.

And almost all eight exchanges this year have happened since North Korea began testing a new short-range missile at the end of July.

"Small-range missiles are relatively easier to detect on both sides, but Japan might have better knowledge if North Korea launches medium- and long-range missiles beyond our radars, though we are working with the United States, "said a South Korean military official.

The GSOMIA Pact helped prepare joint long-term assessments of North Korea's threats, as each country would provide on-demand information, unlike South Korea and the US, which share almost real-time data, officials said.

But going through an intermediary is a step backwards, which could make future real-time tracking collaboration even less likely.

"Now you do not know when the requested information will be transmitted – it may take hours or days," added the employee, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Impact on the US Alliance

The United States, Japan and South Korea signed a separate deal, the Tripartite Information Sharing Agreement (TISA) in 2014, in the face of rising nuclear and missile threats in North Korea.

This restricted the scope of shared information to Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, in contrast to which GSOMIA allowed South Korea and Japan to request mutual intelligence on North Korea.

South Korea will "actively use" TISA to ensure that there is no information vacuum, Deputy National Security Advisor Kim Hong Jong said on Friday.

An official of the Self-Defense Force of Japan stated that although "many people were surprised" by Seoul's decision to abolish the pact, cooperation would continue at other levels.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington was "disappointed", an unusually strong word that had not been used for years until the Pentagon expressed "strong concern."

Kim, a South Korean official, said it was natural for the US to be disappointed because it hoped GSOMIA would be overturned.

But he rejected reports from South Korean media that Seoul had not notified in advance, stating that at least nine telephone calls had been made between July and August.

The explosion in the history and trade dispute between the two largest Asian allies has alarmed the United States, fearing a weakening of security cooperation as China and Russia become increasingly firm and the North Korean threat lessening.

TISA, a US-led initiative launched after the 2012 attempt to conclude a two-way pact, collapsed amid opposition to military cooperation with Japan in South Korea. After all, Seoul signed the GSOMIA Pact in 2016 when the US stepped up.

The United States called on both sides to reach a "standstill agreement" to allow time for talks before Japan could withdraw South Korea's preferred trading partner status.

"This is a decision that South Korea has much more to lose than to win," said Shin Beom-chol, a senior fellow at the Sean Political Studies Institute in Seoul.

"There may be more pressure from the United States, such as paying more for defense spending and supporting its Middle East security initiative."

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin at SEOUL and Tim Kelly at TOKYO; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee at SEOUL and Kiyoshi Takenaka at JAPAN; Editing by Josh Smith and Clarence Fernandez

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Principles of Trust.

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