South Korea on Wednesday signed a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan aimed at better managing the threat from North Korea’s increasingly active missile and nuclear weapons programmes.
The deal, which comes as Seoul scrambles to adjust to the region’s shifting geopolitical landscape, has faced fierce domestic opposition from critics who slam it as an example of embattled President Park Geun-hye’s unilateral decision-making.
Ms Park is embroiled in a multimillion-dollar corruption and influence-peddling scandal that has enraged South Koreans and prompted a string of mass demonstrations demanding her resignation.
The agreement, signed in the South Korean capital, allows the two nations to share information directly and more quickly on military developments in North Korea. Previously, the US was used as an intermediary for intelligence exchange.
Relations between the two east Asian nations still bear the scars of 20th-century conflict, leaving many South Koreans wary of deepening ties. Japan occupied South Korea from 1910 to 1945 and resentment still simmers over Tokyo’s aggression and the thousands of South Korean “comfort women” forced to work in Japanese military brothels during the second world war.
But Pyongyang — which in August launched a missile into Japanese waters and in September tested its fifth nuclear device — has provided a welcome reason for official co-operation.
“We faced a grave security situation this year in which North Korea tested two nuclear devices and fired more than 20 rockets, including submarine-launched ballistic missiles,” said the South Korean defence ministry. “If we can obtain military information on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes directly from Japan, it will greatly strengthen our ability to counter the North’s provocations.”
The deal comes amid broader concerns in the region of a geopolitical shift following the election of Donald Trump in the US.
The president-elect has left many in South Korea on edge following comments on the campaign trail that he might withdraw US forces from the peninsula if Seoul did not shoulder the entire financial burden of hosting the troops. Seoul’s 63-year alliance with Washington is viewed by policymakers as a crucial bulwark against North Korean aggression.
Mr Trump’s election also throws into jeopardy the planned placement in South Korea of a US missile shield in 2017.
The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence platform, or Thaad, is ostensibly to defend against North Korean belligerence. But an increasingly assertive Beijing has objected to the plans, complaining the system would weaken its nuclear deterrent and could be used by the US to spy deep into Chinese territory.
The South Korean defence ministry said Wednesday’s agreement — which comes four years after a similar attempt failed — would allow it to benefit from Japan’s advanced intelligence-gathering equipment, which includes five satellites, four radar systems, six Aegis destroyers and 77 patrol aircraft.
But the deal was met with stinging criticism from South Korea’s opposition, which called it a “rush job”.
Ms Park’s opponents say the ongoing political scandal has undermined her mandate to push through policy. Some South Koreans also feel Japan has not sufficiently atoned for its wartime atrocities on the peninsula.
“I don’t understand why the government is so hastily pursuing such an agreement. It has been done procedurally wrong,” said Moon Chung-in, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. “If a new government relinquishes the agreement, relations [with Japan] will become worse. I just don’t understand it.”
Additional reporting by Kang Buseong
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