South Korea said on Thursday it will scrap an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, drawing a swift protest from Tokyo and deepening a decades-old dispute over history that has hit trade and undercut security cooperation over North Korea.
Seoul's decision not to extend the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) shows how the political and trade dispute between the Asian neighbors and U.S. allies has hit some of the region's most sensitive security issues. The agreement had been due for automatic renewal on Saturday.
The arrangement was designed to share information on the threat posed by North Korea and its missile and nuclear activities — a threat underlined by the North's recent launch of a series of short-range ballistic missiles.
South Korea's Kim You-geun, a deputy director of the presidential National Security Council, said Japan had created a "grave change" in the environment for bilateral security cooperation by removing South Korea's fast-track export status this month.
"Under this situation, we have determined that it would not serve our national interest to maintain an agreement we signed with the aim of exchanging military information which is sensitive to security," Kim told a news conference.
Relations between South Korea and Japan began to deteriorate late last year following a diplomatic row over compensation for wartime forced laborers during Japan's occupation of Korea.
They soured further when Japan tightened its curbs on exports of high-tech materials needed by South Korea's chip industry, and again this month when Tokyo said it would remove South Korea's fast-track export status.
The United States, which fears weakened security cooperation in the region, expressed dismay.
"We're disappointed to see the decision the South Koreans made about that information-sharing agreement. We're urging each of the two countries to continue to engage," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Ottawa, Canada.
"There is no doubt that the shared interests of Japan and South Korea are important and they're important to the United States of America," he added, saying he had spoken to South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha earlier on Thursday.
Japan's foreign minister, Taro Kono, criticized Seoul for what he said was mixing the export controls with security issues.
"Given such issues as North Korea, everyone probably understands the importance of this agreement. But this decision was made while linking it to Japan's review of export controls," he told reporters. "I cannot help saying they are completely misreading the security environment."
He said Tokyo had summoned the South Korean ambassador in protest.