(Nikkei: January 18, 2015 – p. 4)
By Yukio Tajima
Japan is expected to more effectively address North Korean military threats via a new information sharing framework with South Korea and the U.S. established at the end of 2014.
Under the new three-party scheme, Japan is supposed to provide South Korea, by way of the U.S., with defense secrets about Pyongyang’s nuclear capability and missiles obtained by Tokyo when it feels that it should inform Seoul, and vice versa.
“How to deal with North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats is our common pressing security challenge,” said Japanese Defense Minister Gen Nakatani. He added that Tokyo aims to effectively tap into the new scheme, which is de facto defense collaboration between Japan and South Korea.
Defense information such as satellite imagery, troop action plans in the case of an emergency, and specifications of defense equipment is crucial for national security. Therefore, taking precautions such as concluding a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) that requires parties to strictly guard confidentiality of exchanged information is essential. A bilateral GSOMIA has already been signed by the U.S. and Japan and the U.S. and South Korea, respectively.
Tokyo and Seoul had intended to make such an agreement in the past, but the attempt failed in June 2012 just before South Korean feelings toward Japan started to seriously sour. It means that a framework based on a memorandum of understanding is the next best solution, although the legally binding force of an understanding is weaker than that of an agreement.
A source close to the Japanese government, however, says the new framework will significantly help Japan to accurately detect missile launches in North Korea. It has been difficult for Japan’s Defense Ministry and Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to instantly detect and track any missile shot from inside North Korea from across the Sea of Japan. However, South Korea’s radars, which are installed on the same landmass as the North, can detect any missile launch there faster than any other nation.
Early knowledge of launch sites and missile trajectories would also provide Japan with extra time to intercept any assault with Aegis destroyer or surface-to-air PAC-3 Patriot missiles.
Obtaining missile launch information as soon as possible is crucial for Tokyo. Past experiences of trying to gain such data have been frustrating. In April 2012, Pyongyang launched a long-distance ballistic missile, which it claimed was carrying a satellite. However, it took roughly 40 minutes for the Japanese government led by then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to detect the launch using the SDF radar and then deliver the first report, despite the shared early warning alert from an American satellite immediately after the launch.
Early detection of the launched missile failed, largely because the Japanese government was too afraid of repeating a false alarm similar to April 2009. If Tokyo could obtain information from both Washington and Seoul without delay, it would be able to act and make decisions more quickly.
The new framework is expected to work in South Korea’s favor, too. According to a South Korean military official, Japan’s SDF has an impressive ability to gather information on radio wave volume in North Korea. This information is crucial, because military actions such as nuclear tests and missile launches are reportedly accompanied by significant fluctuations in communication traffic immediately before detonation or launch.
The SDF is allegedly better at detecting radio wave traffic in North Korea than its South Korean counterpart. A source familiar with South Korea’s national defense said that information provided by Tokyo would also be useful in detecting locations of vehicles capable of launching missiles. Intelligence provided by Japan’s spy satellite would also be a boon to Seoul, now entirely reliant on intelligence from U.S. satellites.
The framework is also expected to help curb North Korean efforts to develop nuclear weapons and missiles. If Japan and South Korea could share information on North Korean ships that may be carrying nuclear-related goods or arms components, they may be able to detect smuggling routes into the country.
However, one SDF official is not entirely content with the establishment of the framework. The official doubts if the information will actually be exchanged, even if the scheme has been set up, because there has been no progress in talks on how to smoothly operate the information sharing framework. A schedule for communication drills among the three nations is also yet to be established.
What is worse, the new framework has less guarantee in security of information than a
GSOMIA, although Tokyo and Seoul will continue to pursue a possible conclusion of the agreement. An SDF official said that Japan cannot offer sensitive information under the current framework. [Translated by Nikkei/edited by MATT]