WASHINGTON—The U.S., Japan and South Korea have agreed to sign an intelligence-sharing pact next week aimed at improving defenses against North Korean missiles, according to officials from the three countries.
The accord also could signal a potential thaw in the tense relations between Seoul and Tokyo.
The agreement was a key priority of outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. While tensions between Tokyo and Seoul have made progress difficult, Mr. Hagel has put improved missile-defense cooperation near the top of the agenda in talks with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts.
The Pentagon didn’t officially confirm the agreement, but spokeswoman Maureen Schumann said the three countries have been working on stepped-up information sharing.
“The greater trilateral coordination with our nations and particularly the information sharing will increase stability in the northeast Asia region,” she said.
A spokesman for South Korea’s defense ministry said in a press release emailed on Friday that South Korea, the U.S., and Japan are close to signing a trilateral deal on sharing intelligence. Seoul’s Yonhap news agency, citing unnamed Korean defense officials, said vice defense ministers of the three countries will individually sign a memorandum of understanding on the deal on Monday.
The intelligence-sharing deal may signal that relations between South Korea and Japan, which have been at a two-decade low,are poised to improve. Defense experts in Washington hailed the pending agreement as important both for improving defenses against North Korea and as a signal that cooperation could improve between America’s most important allies in Asia.
An intelligence pact was supposed to be signed in 2012, but was scrapped in the face of rising Seoul-Tokyo tensions.
South Korean officials have viewed the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as overly nationalistic. The visits of Japanese officials to a controversial shrine honoring Japan’s war dead have angered South Korean and other Asian leaders. Japanese officials have in turn grown frustrated with what they saw as Seoul trying to reopen what they considered already-settled historical disputes, such as the Japanese government’s role in forcing South Korean women to serve as prostitutes during World War II.
The U.S. has been trying to use its ties to both countries to bypass those disputes and make progress on trilateral military issues.
Mr. Abe was re-elected this month and has begun his second administration pledging to overhaul Japanese national-security laws and strengthen cooperation with the U.S. armed forces. He said this week he was open to dialogue with South Korea, and South Korean officials said they hope Japan will make efforts to move bilateral relations forward.
“I am more optimistic than I have been in the last year,” said Victor Cha, the Korea chairman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Washington think tank. “Abe won and South Korea is going to have to deal with him.”
The U.S. and Japan have long believed it was critical that the Japanese self-defense forces gain instantaneous access to data collected by South Korean warships equipped with advanced Aegis radar. Positioned in South Korean waters, the warships are usually the first to detect a North Korean missile launch.
The amount of additional warning time the agreement will give Japan is classified. But defense experts said it could give Japan be as much as two extra minutes to track a missile flying from North Korea and determine where the warhead is going and if it poses a threat.
Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said until now, Japan has had little in the way of information that South Korea needed. But the Defense Department announced Friday that a new TPY-2 radar system has been deployed and tested at a site in Kyogamisaki, Japan. Mr. Ellison said the location will allow it to collect data that will help improve South Korean defenses.
“South Korea was not willing to give anything to Japan because they didn’t see what Japan added to the picture,” Mr. Ellison said. “Now all of a sudden Japan has a new technology…that can offer something to South Korea.”