SEOUL — South Korea has requested a last-minute postponement of the signing of an unprecedented agreement with Japan allowing the sharing of classified military data. The delay was caused by political sensitivities in South Korea.
The pact to exchange military intelligence would be the first between Seoul and Tokyo since Japan's occupation of Korea.
The two neighbors, long wary of each other, share increasing defense concerns about North Korea and China.
The signing by Japan's foreign minister and South Korea's ambassador had been expected to take place in Tokyo Friday afternoon. But shortly before pens were to be put to paper, came word that Seoul had requested a delay so the agreement could be explained to worried governing party and angry opposition members of the National Assembly.
The politicians object to what they term "a lack of transparency" this week by the South Korean government in approving the pact, as well as lingering but strong anti-Japanese sentiment among citizens.
Park Chang-kwoun, senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, says while South Korea and Japan enjoy close economic and warming social ties as democratic neighbors their military relationship, by contrast, has been weak.
Park says the new agreement would enhance trust and help Seoul with its concerns about Pyongyang because Japan and South Korea could share intelligence on North Korea's programs in pursuit of nuclear bombs and other weapons of mass destruction.
But Park cautions that because of long-standing historical and territorial tensions between South Korea and Japan, the worries among citizens of this country about closer cooperation with the Japanese need to be dispelled.
The Korean peninsula was under a brutal Japanese occupation for most of the first half of the 20th century and many in South Korea retain anti-Japanese sentiments.
South Korean civic groups and opposition politicians have denounced the military agreement, with some alleging it gives Japan a de facto pardon for its wartime atrocities.
The previous day, Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae, had tried to downplay the significance of the General Security of Military Information Agreement.
Cho says there are inaccurate predictions and misunderstandings about the pact, contending it is not really focused on sharing military secrets. It is a kind of bowl, he explains, and what will be put in that bowl is a completely separate issue yet to be determined.
That sort of hedging by various government spokesmen frustrated reporters and infuriated some politicians.
The government has also been mum on specifics of the agreement. Media reports say the treaty means South Korea and Japan will be able to share intelligence about North Korea and that Seoul will gain access to images and data intercepts from Japanese spy satellites and surveillance flights.
A Japanese government spokesman told VOA Tokyo will “pursue eventual success” of something it considers strategically significant for both countries, as well as the United States. The spokesman, who did not want to be named, expressed understanding of the domestic political sensitivities faced by the South Korean government in concluding the agreement, saying the unexpected delay is “not the end of the world.”
In a sign of closer three-way ties, the navies of the United States, South Korea and Japan conducted joint naval maneuvers last week off the Korean peninsula. And South Korea is to participate next week in a maritime interdiction exercise in Japan.
The United States maintains numerous military bases in both Japan and South Korea.
Officials in Seoul point out South Korea already has intelligence-sharing agreements or related memoranda of understanding with 24 other countries, including the United States, Russia, Germany, Israel and Pakistan. The agreement with Japan would be one of the most significant. However, it now cannot be signed until after legislative discussion here next week.