In surprise move, South Korea postpones military intelligence pact with Japan

South Korea and Japan were supposed to sign a military intelligence pact today – but a political firestorm erupted in South Korea, where resentment of Japan’s colonization remains.

By , Contributor

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    A protester takes part in a rally against the South Korean government's decision to sign a military agreement with Japan that will allow the two countries to exchange key military intelligence in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, June 29.
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South Korea has abruptly backed off from signing a historic agreement to share military intelligence with Japan in a move that highlights the century-old tensions between the two countries. 

Defense officials postponed the pact’s ratification just ahead of the signing ceremony on Friday in Tokyo after Korean President Lee Myung-bak failed to win the support of his own ruling party for the deal.   

The announcement, made earlier this week, that Seoul would share classified materials such as satellite imagery with Japan came as a surprise to National Assembly lawmakers across the political spectrum who are on recess until next week. Some observers say the pact, which could have strengthened bilateral ties, failed because too much secrecy surrounded such a sensitive process.

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“The big criticism is that the government ignored the procedural process,” says Song Wha-sup of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a think tank linked to Seoul’s Ministry of Defense. “When the National Assembly opens and the [pact] is explained, I think the ruling party will support the agreement.”

South Koreans will elect a new leader later this year and the ruling New Frontier Party is trying to distance itself from President Lee who cannot seek another term in office. And in South Korea, appearing too close to the Japanese government, let alone the military, could be political harakiri.

Trust between these East Asian neighbors is hard to come by. Many South Koreans feel Tokyo is unrepentant for its brutal early 20th century rule of the peninsula, which ended in 1945.    

“Korea is one of the countries that suffered a lot because of Japanese military imperialism. So it doesn't make sense to have this agreement when you consider national sentiment,” says Ahn Seon-mi, whose civic group Korean Council for Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan supports weekly protests in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. South Korean historians estimate that around 200,000 so-called comfort women were forced to serve in front-line brothels during World War II.  

The military agreement would have been the first of its kind between the two nations and aimed to enhance cooperation in confronting North Korea’s nuclear and conventional weapons programs.

Seoul and Tokyo were on heightened alert in April ahead of what became North Korea’s failed attempt to send a rocket into space. Leaders in both nations vowed to shoot down the rocket, believed to be a front for a long-range missile test, if it strayed into their territories.

Mr. Song says that, if enacted, the military agreement could serve as a confidence builder that opens the door to other unresolved issues.

“If we have more contact with Japan, we can persuade the Japanese people or the military to think more about historical or territorial problems,” he says.

Seoul and Tokyo also dispute the ownership of a pair of rocky islets known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, located in waters between the two nations.

The failure of South Korea and Japan to sign the intelligence agreement comes at the cost to Washington’s ambitions to create a united front against North Korea as well as China, says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

“The United States feels that this is a weakness in the alliance that two of their allies are in a long term mutual pout," says Mr. Kingston. 

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