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Japan-South Korea rift

Japan-South Korea feud puts intelligence-sharing pact at risk

Seoul considers end to partnership as trade row and radar lock-on mar security ties

Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, far right, meets with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, far left, in Singapore in June.

TOKYO -- Japan and South Korea's ongoing feud over trade and wartime labor is now spilling into defense, as Seoul weighs canceling its intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo.

The two countries face many shared security concerns, including North Korea's nuclear and missile program and China's growing military presence. They signed a General Security of Military Information Agreement in November 2016 to better share intelligence.

The pact automatically renews yearly unless one side decides not to. The deadline to cancel the agreement for this year is Aug. 24.

"Normally, it would be unthinkable to scrap the pact," a Japanese defense official said.

But bilateral tensions only continue grow after the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to compensate those forced to work for them during World War II, which in turn led to export restrictions by Tokyo on key chipmaking materials.

"We plan to maintain [the military agreement] right now, but we could reconsider this stance depending on future developments," said Chung Eui-yong, the director of South Korean National Security Office, on July 18.

Japanese officials have expressed their eagerness to keep the framework alive.

"Japan-South Korea ties are facing challenges, but it is important for us to work together in areas we need to work together," Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters Monday.

"We have no intentions of canceling the agreement on our end," Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya also said. "We will cooperate closely with South Korea on security."

North Korea is trying to take advantage of the rift. Uriminzokkiri, a North Korean propaganda website, recently urged Seoul to scrap the intelligence-sharing pact. It is unclear how South Korean President Moon Jae-in will react, given his conciliatory stance toward the North.

Japan and South Korea's ties have cooled dramatically in recent months. In addition to the wartime labor issue, a South Korean navy ship locked its fire control radar on a Japanese patrol aircraft in December. Despite footage released by Japan, South Korea denies that the lock-on happened and blames the Japanese plane.

Iwaya and South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo held an unofficial meeting in Singapore in June. But both refused to budge in their first talks in eight months.

A flyby of a disputed island chain conducted by Russia and China last week also added to tensions. South Korea fired several hundred warning shots against the planes near the islands, which it controls and calls Dokdo. But Japan, which claims the islands as Takeshima, lodged a complaint against South Korea for its response. There is speculation that the incident was intended to test the security partnership between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.

U.S. President Donald Trump at one point seemed interested in mediating the feud, but has not taken any concrete steps so far. The U.S. government is wary of getting too involved in the situation.

"Until now, we have treated the economy as a separate issue from security," a Japanese defense official said.

There is growing concern that the countries could even cut off all security ties if the situation devolves further.

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