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Interview

South Korea gave US no 'forewarning' when it left Japan intel pact

Asst. defense secretary calls on Seoul to ‘reconsider’ decision

WASHINGTON -- A senior U.S. defense official has called on South Korea to rethink its decision to cancel an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, saying the regional security environment obliges tight cooperation, not bickering, among America's allies.

"Our hope is that they'll reconsider this decision," said Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs.

Schriver was speaking Tuesday during an exclusive interview with Nikkei.

On Thursday, South Korea's National Security Council decided to cancel an intelligence pact with Japan, known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement.

Regarding the increasingly chilly relationship between Japan and South Korea, Schriver said, "If the tensions continue, the countries that would benefit would be China, North Korea, and Russia."

Signed in November 2016, the pact stipulates a 90-day notice to halt an automatic annual renewal. To cancel, one side must inform the other by Aug. 24 of each year. The South Korean government informed Japan of its decision on Aug. 23. Both the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon expressed concern and disappointment.

Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs (File photo by Akira Kodaka)

In the interview Schriver reiterated the administration's concern with and disappointment in the Moon Jae-in administration for deciding not to renew the pact.

While noting that it was ultimately a "sovereign decision" for South Korea, Schriver said, "All we can do is point out the down sides of this decision and the risks that are present."

The assistant secretary also hinted at his displeasure with the process leading up to the cancellation. "We certainly talked about this as a possibility, including during Secretary [Mark] Esper's visit to both Seoul and Tokyo," Schriver said. "However, [regarding] the specific decision, we did not have any forewarning."

Schriver contradicted the South Korean government's assertion that the cancellation was undertaken with the understanding of Washington. "As far as we understood," he said, "it was still under consideration at the time they made their decision."

Technically, Japan and South Korea could share information if the U.S. acts as an intermediary. But Schriver shot down this option, calling it cumbersome and slower than if Tokyo and Seoul directly talk to each other. He said it was "probably not optimal for the security environment we're in."

Regarding North Korea's repeated missile launches, Schriver said it does appear Pyongyang is using these tests as more than a political maneuver, that the North Koreans are striving to improve their own capability.

He added that the rising threat of North Korea, China and Russia is making it indispensable for the U.S., Japan and South Korea to cooperate in Northeast Asia.

As for the financial burden of stationing U.S. military forces in Japan, he said that "as a global policy, President [Donald] Trump has been clear that he wants to see greater burden sharing across the board."

"That view will certainly be represented from our negotiators, when those discussions start," he added, indicating that the U.S. will likely ask Japan to contribute more financially. The negotiations are set to gain momentum as the current agreement expires in March 2021.

In the interview, Schriver did not rule out the possibility that Japan could be a candidate for the deployment of ground-launched medium-range missiles, which became possible after the U.S.-Russia Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty was abolished this month.

"We're not at that stage yet and certainly we'll have plenty of space for discussion, with Japan and others, if we do want to give serious consideration to that kind of option," he said.

Defense Secretary Esper has spoken about the need to deploy medium-range missiles in Asia as soon as possible to counter China and Russia.

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