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Japan-South Korea rift

Moon raises tensions with Japan, critics say, to save his aide

Justice minister nominee faces criticism in college admission scandal

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been accused of raising tensions with Japan intentionally to help a close aide who faces criticism over a college admissions scandal, according to the main opposition party and outside analysts. 

Moon stands accused of terminating an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan to divert attention from Cho Kuk, who is under pressure to withdraw his name from consideration as justice minister.

Cho Kuk, who served as senior secretary under Moon, is suspected of using his influence to have his daughter's name added as an author of a medical thesis when she was a high school student. Later she entered Korea University, a renowned private college, partly thanks to the thesis. She also gained admission to a medical school in Busan after graduating from the university.

Hundreds of students at Seoul National University and Korea University rallied on Friday night, demanding that Cho withdraw his candidacy as justice minister and step down from his law professorship at the SNU.

"Leaders in this administration disregarded our country to save Cho Kuk. They decided to terminate GSOMIA ... which is a basic part of the South Korea-U.S. alliance, and South Korea-U.S.-Japan security cooperation," said Rep. Na Kyung-won, floor leader of the Liberty Korea Party, at a rally on Saturday.

Local media have made similar allegations. Chosun Ilbo, the country's largest newspaper by circulation, said in an editorial that the Moon government may have terminated GSOMIA to stir up anti-Japan sentiment, as people are upset by the Cho Kuk scandal. 

GSOMIA refers to the General Security of Military Information Agreement between South Korea and Japan. The presidential Blue House announced on Friday that it will terminate the agreement, saying it cannot share sensitive military information with Japan, which has raised doubts about South Korea's control of strategic materials. GSOMIA was signed in 2016 and allows for the exchange of information on North Korean missiles in the face of nuclear threats from Pyongyang.

The Blue House rejects suggestions that its decision was connected to Cho Kuk's nomination, saying that linking the two issues is inappropriate. 

Shin Yul, a professor of political science at Myongji University, said it is odd that the government changed its position so quickly on GSOMIA.

"I have no idea why the government changed its position on maintaining the agreement so abruptly. It is an assumption that [the decision] could be affected [by the Cho Kuk issue], but it could be," Shin said. 

Terminating GSOMIA is Seoul's latest response to Tokyo's decision earlier this month to drop South Korea from its "whitelist" of preferred trade partners.

Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University, said that Seoul often neglects bilateral relations with Japan while using tensions with Japan for domestic political purposes. He cited Seoul's recent military drills around Takeshima, a group of islets in the Sea of Japan that South Korea calls Dokdo. South Korea controls the islands, but Japan claims them as its territory. 

"Conducting an expanded exercise immediately after canceling GSOMIA [raised] concerns that the Moon government undervalues the relationship with Japan and overplays bilateral issues in domestic politics," Easley said.

"North Korea's missiles are becoming harder to locate, track and defend against. That means South Korea needs more projectile data, faster, for the sake of its national security. Now is not the time to cancel an intelligence-sharing agreement that helps provide that data," he said.

The decision comes as President Moon's support wanes, in part due to the Cho scandal. Young people, in particular, feel betrayed by the president, whom they have supported for his political agenda, which promised fairness and equality.

In a recent Gallup poll, Moon's approval rating dropped to 45% in the fourth week of August, down from 47% a week earlier. Disapproval of Moon jumped to 49% from 43% over the same period.

According to a separate poll by JoongAng Ilbo, a South Korean daily, 60.2% of respondents said they opposed the appointment of Cho as justice minister, while 27.2% said they supported it. The remaining 12.6% said they were not aware of the issue or declined to comment.

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