Seoul and Tokyo to Share Intelligence on N. Korea

South Korea fence

S. Korean troops patrolling the edge of the DMZ; Image courtesy of Department of Defense, U.S. Army

Seoul and Tokyo to Share Intelligence on N. Korea
| published December 29, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Traditionally, Japan and South Korea have a lot of disagreements. Though both are close allies of the United States, as well as heavy trading partners with America and its economic allies, the two countries have sharp disagreements on specifics—most especially a small patch of islands known as Takeshima in Japanese, and officially called Dodko in Korean.

This territorial dispute, which dates back more than a century and requires a lot of complex reading of historical materials on both sides of the waters which separate South Korea from Japan, has for decades prevented the two countries from agreeing on much in the way of military defense, technology, or trade and commerce. The islands are little more than green, grassy rocks, jutting up 300 plus feet from the waters. There are lighthouses, a couple of radar towers, and the residential remnants of a handful of fisherman (and the descendants of one) who occupied the islands for 30 years, from the early 1960s to the end of the 1980s. The island also features a small military-security outpost staffed by a few South Korean soldiers.

On some western maps—British, American, Portuguese—the islands are called the Liancourt Rocks, named for the French whaling ship which, in 1949, ran aground on the rocks and was nearly smashed into kindling by the waves. The tiny island cluster consists of two main islands, which jut up dramatically from the ocean, and scores of smaller rocks scattered about nearby—some no bigger than 12 feet in length or diameter.

Still, this tiny archipelago has been one of several territorial disputes which have acted as a wedge between Japan and South Korea; two nations which should—by any intuitive account—have become close allies and trading partners. And these disagreements, along with several others, have kept the two Asian economies largely disconnected from trade agreements and economic policy accords which could have helped the growth and robustness of both.

But leave it to North Korea and its sometimes bellicose leaders to thrust itself into the relationships of uneasy partners and territorial squabbles, and making usually unhappy neighbors into new working partners.

Japan and South Korea, despite their animosity and grievances, will soon sign a military-intelligence sharing accord to swap crucial data and intelligence about North Korea—especially Pyongyang’s military movements, missile and nuclear programs, and now its much-discussed cyber-capabilities. Cyber-security analysts and computer experts believe that North Korea was behind cyber-attacks on both South Korea and Japan in recent years—computer and mainframe assaults which disrupted banks, financial firms, and media companies in both countries. In each sets of circumstances, the code used in the cyber-attacks included code and malware known to have been used routinely by North Korean hackers.

Both South Korea and Japan have had reasons to worry about North Korea over the decades. Three generations of the Kim family patriarchs—the longstanding top rulers of North Korea since the end of the Korean War—have held Japan and South Korea in low regard. Pyongyang has repeatedly threatened both countries with unilateral military action, and North Korean rocket and missile tests have often been designed to strike fear into the two U.S. allies. The uneasy stalemate along the 38th parallel—a 150 mile long demarcation which cuts across the Korean Peninsula, established in 1953 as the cease-fire line—has been maintained through heavy U.S. military assistance and support, but for people living south of the DMZ, there has always been a touch of fear that North Korea will make good on its frequent threats of military action. Japan, too, is now well within range of North Korea’s rocket and missile program; North Korea has often issued threats and warnings to the Japanese. Like South Korea, Japan also relies on a consistent U.S. military presence to bolster its defenses against attack.

In the last two years, both countries have been affected by North Korea’s cyber-attacks, several of which have wreaked havoc on financial institutions and banks.

As recently as two weeks ago, North Korea said publicly that it would ramp up its nuclear missile program in direct response to reactions of the United States in the wake of the Sony Pictures cyber-attack—a security breach which the FBI and the White House say was instigated by Pyongyang, though many computer experts believe the attack could not have been possible without assistance from hackers outside of North Korea.

Though North Korea has said it was not responsible for the attack, it has also praised the cyber-assault and heaped laurels upon the mysterious hackers. The cyber-attack came as an apparent result of North Korean opposition to the action-comedy The Interview, which stars Seth Rogen and James Franco, a movie in which two TV journalists are recruited by the CIA to kill Kim Jong-un. North Korea has called the film offensive, and has liked it to an act of war.

North Korea has also taken issue with international and United Nations characterizations of Pyongyang as one of the most repressive and brutal regimes in the world. At the urging of the United States, the U.N. recently said that North Korea has the worst record of human rights of any nation in the world. North Korea has called such public talk both humiliating and warlike.

Despite international bans on such activity, North Korea last year conducted its third test of an atomic weapon, and it has also been testing longer-range missiles. Though some military analysts say that North Korea has yet to make the technological leap necessary to combine nuclear capability with reliable rocket delivery, some are concerned that the isolated, embittered nation may soon be willing to fire such a missile—with potentially grave results for either Japan or South Korea.

Japan and South Korea plan to have a ceremony in January in which the military and intelligence sharing accord is signed by the top defense ministry officials of each country.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Was It Worth All The Fuss?; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; December 26, 2014.

N. Korea Cyber-Attack: Real, or Smokescreen; Thursday Review; December 5, 2014.