Korea and Japan are to sign their first military cooperation pact since the end of Japan's occupation of Korea in 1945. "If things go as planned, the two nations will sign the pact on Friday," Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae told reporters Thursday.
The pact allows Seoul and Tokyo to exchange classified military intelligence on North Korea's nuclear and missile programs as well as information about China's growing military power. Other pacts that have been mooted, on military logistics and equipment sharing, have been put on the back burner given entrenched public resentment of the former colonizers here.
◆ Intelligence on North Korea
Given the sensitivity of the pact, there were signs that the government tried to smuggle it past public notice. It was brought up and passed in the Cabinet on Wednesday without review at the lower ministerial level, and the government did not mention it in a press briefing immediately after the Cabinet meeting.
But government officials insist the need to share military intelligence is greater than ever in view of North Korea's nuclear and missile threats. Experts believe the real reason is pressure from Washington to forge a closer three-way alliance to keep China in check. "Washington had proposed joint military drills for Korea, the U.S. and Japan for years, and the information sharing agreement is something the U.S. had been asking for in the same context," a government source here said on condition of anonymity. The source added the plans have "strategic significance" vis-a-vis China's growing might.
The bilateral pact provides the legal framework for Seoul and Tokyo to share, protect and manage military intelligence. They will be able to share intelligence not only on North Korean troops, nuclear weapons and missiles, but on Chinese naval movements too.
Military officials here said there is no need to worry since the pact is merely a framework authorizing the sharing of military intelligence and does not stipulate that Seoul must hand over classified information to Tokyo.
But some experts object that the military intelligence Japan has gathered about North Korea is no more sophisticated than the information Seoul has obtained from the U.S. or by its own efforts. "What country in the world has as much intelligence information on North Korea as we do?" said one intelligence expert. "If you look at its benefits and losses, Japan has more to gain."
◆ U.S. Pressure
The U.S. is seeking to strengthen U.S.-Korea-Japan military cooperation as part of its strategy to keep China in check. But Seoul has been less than enthusiastic given strong lingering resentment among Koreans over Japan's past atrocities. Whenever they had the chance, U.S. officials have urged the government here to hold military drills involving all three countries, but the only trilateral military exercise Seoul has agreed to so far has been rescue drills like the one held last week in the East China Sea.
"Japan and the U.S. have shared military intelligence since they signed an information sharing pact, but the U.S. had been frustrated since no such accord exists between Korea and Japan," a government official said. As soon as the Cabinet approved the pact on Wednesday, the U.S. State Department issued a statement welcoming the move.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta apparently asked Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin during the "2+2" meeting between the foreign and defense ministers earlier this month to rush the accord, but Seoul denies this.