South Korea's withdrawal from an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan is an impulsive decision that risks further destabilizing the security situation in Northeast Asia. It is especially disappointing at a time when North Korea is launching missiles and China is building up its military.
The need for the General Security of Military Information Agreement is greater than ever. Pyongyang has carried out several launches of short-range ballistic missiles and other projectiles and has improved the sophistication of its arsenal with such technology as guidance systems. Recent reports indicate that the North has developed a submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles, which could be used as a delivery system for nuclear warheads.
The pact offers many benefits to South Korea, complementing its military weak points. Seoul can view up-to-date images from Japanese satellites, as well as take advantage of the exceptional monitoring and detection capabilities of Japanese anti-submarine patrol aircraft, for example.
It should be no surprise that Seoul has been criticized for sacrificing these advantages seemingly to spite Tokyo.
The arrangement also gives Japan ready access to missile information from South Korean radar sites and reconnaissance aircraft. This lets Tokyo quickly determine a projectile's launch site and flight path, enabling valuable analysis before missiles can reach the Japanese archipelago.
The 2016 agreement, which will now expire in November, was renewed multiple times because of these mutual benefits. The emotional clash between Japan and South Korea should not be allowed to spread to defense cooperation.
Once the pact ends, Tokyo and Seoul will be able to share sensitive defense-related intelligence only by using the U.S. as an intermediary. This risks hindering timely decision-making in an emergency. The U.S. Department of Defense's expression of "strong concern and disappointment" at South Korea's decision shows Washington's alarm at this development.
The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been a less-than-enthusiastic member of the security partnership with Japan and the U.S. as it seeks reconciliation with North Korea and builds closer ties with China and Russia.
Its withdrawal from the information-sharing agreement made clear that the progressive government is distancing itself from an arrangement that dates from the Cold War era and has become a keystone of regional security.
North Korea's previous demands that the GSOMIA be scrapped were proof that it feared the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trio. Tearing up the deal is a step in the wrong direction. A rift between Seoul and Tokyo that drives a wedge into the three-way partnership would play into the hands of Pyongyang as well as Beijing and Moscow.
South Korea's own Ministry of National Defense and intelligence agency have acknowledged the importance of the agreement. The pullout has led to even expressions of concern in the country that Seoul is using the row with Tokyo for domestic political ends.
South Korea should calmly assess the regional security landscape to gain a renewed understanding of importance of the deal. And Japan, for its part, should carefully consider how to mend bilateral ties.