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Military pact delayed

June 30, 2012

South Korea has put off signing a military deal with Japan that would have seen the countries sharing more information. Despite important mutual interests, the shadow cast by history makes for a troubled relationship.

Japan's H-2A rocket lifts off from a launch pad at the Tanegashima Space Center in Tanegashima, Japan, in March 2003
Image: dapd

South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae said that the government had been asked to delay the signing of the agreement only hours before it was due to take place in Tokyo.

The request came from South Korea's ruling Saenuri Party. The deal, known as the South Korea-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement, allows for the sharing of military intelligence on North Korea.

"It seems that the big thing they wanted to share was satellite imagery of North Korea and its nuclear sites," said Jason Strother, DW correspondent in South Korea.

The presidential cabinet had approved the signing of the agreement on Tuesday, with the assembly still in recess. Japan's government sanctioned it on Friday.

But in a country where memories of a decades-long Japanese occupation still run deep, the policy soon attracted criticism.

"President Lee didn't even have the support of his own party on this," said Strother. "The presidential cabinet were trying to keep it as low profile as possible but it became clear that even his own ruling party were not happy about it."

Wounds far from healed

Bitter recollections linger of Japanese rule between 1910 and 1945, while present day disputes also cast a shadow. Seoul and Tokyo have long contested the ownership of a group of rocky islets, the Liancourt Rocks, that lie in the sea between them. Even the name of that body of water - being called either the Sea of Japan or, from a Korean perspective, the East Sea - is a bone of contention.

Japan's rejection of talks about the compensation of Korean women who were used by its soldiers as sex slaves during World War II has also raised the ire of many on the peninsula.

Some, like the watchdog group Citizens Coalition for Economic Justice fear the deal would help pave the way for Japanese troops to once again set foot in Korea. It's something that has profound implications.

"There's a lot of sensitivity about anything involving Japan and especially its military," said Strother. "A lot of Koreans don't feel that Japan has repented enough."

"They don't feel that South Korea should be working so closely with the Japanese military. It's like it happened yesterday."

Growing threat emphasizes benefits

The advantages of the deal seem clear for Seoul, which would have access to Japanese satellite imagery of the North and high-tech surveillance aircraft. The death of Kim Jong-Il and recent saber rattling by Pyongyang has raised tensions in the area. There are advantages too, for South Korea's ally the United States. With some 60,000 troops stationed in South Korea and Japan, Washington is keen to see the deal done.

"The first ting is that both countries perceive a growing threat from North Korea since the change of regime," said Markus Tidten, Japan and northeastern Asia expert at the German Institute for Security and International Affairs.

"Then there is the fact that both of them are anxious about the development of China and its growing military potential. So it's important for the two countries themselves from the point of view of their own defense and foreign policy."

"It is also a wish and aim of the USA that its two most important allies in Asia have a better relationship and cooperate more on these things."

The latest delay is the second time the deal has been postponed, with the original signing suspended only last month. The South's Foreign Ministry now says the government plans to consult legislators in the National Assembly before going ahead.

Author: Richard Connor
Editor: Sarah Berning

South Korean Navy speedboats anchor at the Yeonpyeong Island, South Korea
South Korea and Japan have not had a military pact since WW IIImage: AP
A North Korean soldier observes through a pair of binoculars to the south at the Truce Village of Panmunjom
Japan and South Korea are wary of Pyongyang's plansImage: AP