South Korea pulls intelligence deal with Japan back from the brink

Still,there was however no deadline set for the two countries to resolve their differences

Photo: AFP Japan's Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi (R) shakes hands with South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha before a bilateral meeting at the G20 Foreign Ministers' meeting in Nagoya

South Korea on Friday made a last-minute decision to stick with its critical intelligence-sharing deal with Japan, a dramatic reversal after months of frigid relations complicated by painful, wartime history.

The decision, announced by South Korea’s presidential Blue House, was welcomed by Washington, since the US has been the one to pressure its two Asian allies to set aside their feud and maintain the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), seen as linchpin of trilateral security cooperation.

“This decision sends a positive message that like-minded allies can work through bilateral disputes,” a spokeswoman for the US State Department said.

“We encourage (South Korea) and Japan to continue sincere discussions to ensure a lasting solution to historic issues,” she said, adding that Washington strongly believed that defence and security issues should be kept separate from other areas of their relationship.

Seoul initially said it would withdraw from the intelligence-sharing pack once the current pact ran out at midnight on Friday, amid a spat over history and trade. If happened, the expiry of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was to intensify discord between South Korea and the US, which wants its two Asian allies to keep their dispute out of security cooperation matters. South Korea's national security official Kim You-geun, however has stressed that the country "conditionally" suspend the expiry now, and that the Japanese government had "expressed their understanding" but warned that the agreement could still "be terminated at any time".

The dispute between the two countries has its roots in a decades-old disagreement over compensation for South Korean laborers forced to work at Japanese firms during World War Two. It has deepened this year, and upended trade between the two countries, resulting in Japan putting export curbs on materials used to make semiconductors in order to threaten the global supply chain of chips - a pillar of the South Korean economy.

News of the Friday decision quickly grabbed the limelight at the Group of 20 (G20) foreign minister meetings being held in the central Japanese city of Nagoya. In almost unheard of move, Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi briefly stepped out of a bilateral meeting with his Russian counterpart to address reporters.

“My understanding is that the South Korean government took this strategic decision, given the current security environment,” Motegi said, adding he would meet the South Korean foreign minister during the G20. 

South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, had been notable for her absence at the G20. Her attendance had not been formally confirmed and she only arrived in Nagoya late on Friday, after the decision had been announced.

Seeking to build on a lowering of tensions, Motegi and Kang agreed Saturday, November 23, to arrange a summit between two countries' leaders next month. According to Asian media, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon Jae-in could meet in China next month. The summit would take place on the occasion of the Japan-China-South Korea trilateral scheduled for next month, said a Japanese diplomat who declined to give his name.

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