Security Brief

Seoul to Scrap Intel-Sharing Pact that Helps Monitor North Korea

Seoul’s decision to end a key agreement with Tokyo could undermine security in the region after a series of missile tests from Pyongyang.

People watch a television news screen showing file footage of North Korea's missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on August 10, 2019. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
People watch a television news screen showing file footage of North Korea's missile launch, at a railway station in Seoul on August 10, 2019. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)

What’s on tap: South Korea’s feud with Japan could undermine efforts to track North Korean missile launches, the Pentagon kills its new “kill vehicle,” and Trump has a new ambassador to Russia. 

South Korea Escalates Feud with Japan

Intel-sharing pact in jeopardy. South Korea said Thursday that it will scrap a key intelligence-sharing pact with Japan that helps track the North’s missile launches, a decision that could undermine security in the region amid a nasty feud between the two U.S. allies over history and trade. 

The decision is likely to alarm the United States, which played a key role in brokering the pact, as it weakens security cooperation at a delicate time in the Pacific. Pyongyang has conducted several short-range missile tests in recent weeks in protest against annual US-South Korea joint military drills that it sees as a rehearsal for invasion. Meanwhile, a senior U.S. diplomat said Wednesday that Washington is ready to restart nuclear negotiations. 

What does the pact do? Under the General Security of Military Information Agreement, signed in 2016 after years of diplomatic efforts by the United States, Tokyo and Seoul share information about North Korea. Japan provides imagery and electronic information to South Korea in exchange for human intelligence, according to Defense Newshelpful explainer on the issue. The agreement is vital for tracking North Korean missile launches and other activity. 

Experts worry that Seoul’s decision to walk away from the agreement could significantly undercut security in the region, potentially undermining early detection of North Korean missile launches. 

U.S. urges diplomacy. During meetings with his counterparts in Seoul and Tokyo earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper urged both U.S. allies to find a solution to the trade dispute, which most experts believe is really about South Korean umbrage at Japan’s use of forced labor during its occupation of the peninsula and what many in South Korea see as Japanese unwillingness to make amends. Esper cautioned that the two should keep their eyes on long-term concerns: North Korea and China. 

But the intel-sharing agreement appears all but unsalvageable. Seoul said it would deliver a formal notice of its decision to Japan by the Aug. 24 deadline to extend the pact.

What We’re Watching

First phase of Syria safe zone. In a phone call on Wednesday, Esper and his Turkish counterpart agreed to launch the first phase of establishing a safe zone in northern Syria this week, which will see joint patrols of Turksih and U.S. soldiers. But Esper acknowledged that there are still “technical details to be worked through”–a reference to what has been the main sticking point, the size of the zone. 

The safety of the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds, who Ankara views as a terrorist threat but who were a vital ally in defeating the Islamic State caliphate in northeast Syria, are one major concern. The group is worried that a safe zone too deep could leave them vulnerable to Turkish attacks. 

Australia joins Gulf maritime force. Canberra has agreed to join a U.S.-led naval coalition designed to protect commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman as Iran threatens vessels operating in the strategic waterways. Australia is the third ally to join the coalition, following announcements by both Britain and Bahrain. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government would lend a frigate, patrol plane and specialist defense force personnel to the mission. 

Despite the modest scope of Australia’s contributions, the news does mark a win for the U.S.-led initiative, which initially struggled to gain traction amid pushback by European partners trying to salvage the Iran nuclear deal. 

U.S. drone downed in Yemen. The United States blamed Iran on Tuesday for the shooting down of a U.S. MQ-9 drone over Yemen by a surface-to-air missile, which U.S. officials believes Tehran provided to Houthi rebels, CNN reports. The news could escalate tension between Washington and Tehran, which has cooled since Trump cancelled a planned missile strike in June. 

DOD kills its new ‘kill vehicle.’ The Pentagon on Wednesday announced its decision to end a faltering effort to develop a new “kill vehicle,” an interceptor designed to destroy incoming missiles. The immediate reason for cancelling the $1 billion Boeing contract, effective Thursday, was “technical difficulties” with the project’s design. But beyond that, the Pentagon is also considering whether it needs to start over with designing a next-generation defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles, such as from North Korea, as well as emerging technology writes the Associated Press. 

The national security glass ceiling. Michèle Flournoy is one of the most recognizable names in U.S. national security policy today, one often floated as a candidate to be the first female secretary of defense. But Flournoy says it will take more than one woman cracking the glass ceiling to boost the number of women at the top of the field, which has stagnated in recent years despite a growing talent pool, Lara Seligman writes

For more news and analysis from Foreign Policy and around the world, subscribe to Morning Brief, delivered weekday mornings.

ISIS Resurgence? 

A cascade of new reports in recent days warn that the Islamic State terrorist group is gaining strength, five months after U.S.-backed forces defeated the remnants of the group’s physical caliphate in Syria. A recent inspector general’s report warned that the U.S. drawdown ordered by Trump last year meant the American military had to cut back support for Syrian partner forces fighting the group. Now, the group is retooling its financial networks and targeting new recruits at an allied-run tent camp, according to the New York Times

Pompeo vs. Esper? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged in an interview this week that “there are places where ISIS is more powerful today than they were three or four years ago,” including Afghanistan, where the group claimed responsibility for a devastating attack in Kabul over the weekend. 

But Esper seemed to have a different take, saying in his first interview since formally taking the reins of the Pentagon that he disagrees with the IG report that ISIS is “in a resurgent state in Syria.” Esper also noted that the physical caliphate is gone, and their ability to conduct “external attacks has been made much more difficult.”

Trump’s re-election prospects. The news that the Islamic State may be resurgent, as well as rising fears of a recession, could cloud the president’s chances at re-election, CNN writes

Perhaps that is part of the reason the president fanned the flames on Wednesday with a bizarre threat to “release” captured Islamic State fighters into France and Germany if the European allies don’t repatriate them. 

This proposal would almost certainly be legally impossible, writes Katie Bo Williams for Defense One. 

FP Recommends

America’s dysfunctional fighter jet. Valerie Insinna, the air warfare reporter for Defense News, made her New York Times Magazine debut this week with an excellent feature on the F-35 fighter jet program, which she calls the Pentagon’s “high-profile problem child.” 

Insinna traces the program’s stumbles and successes, from its inception in the 1990s as the most ambitious aircraft development program in the Pentagon’s history, through high-profile disputes with contractor Lockheed Martin, an engine fire in 2014 that ruined its planned international debut, and now its final challenge: a grueling set of evaluations overseen by the Pentagon’s independent weapons tester. 

Insinna concludes that while the program has put to bed many of its challenges over the last five years, it is not yet in the clear. But “even if the F-35 doesn’t manage to become the unbeatable plane the Pentagon dreamed of, it has become the unkillable program,” she writes. 

Movers & Shakers

New ambassador to Moscow. Trump is expected to name John Sullivan, Pompeo’s deputy secretary of state, to be the next ambassador to Russia, replacing Jon Huntsman Jr., who resigned earlier this month, the Times reported Tuesday. 

The post is a prestigious diplomatic position that is challenging in the best of times, but even more so after a two-year federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Moscow according to the outlet. 

Sullivan served as a senior lawyer in other government departments and briefly led the State Department in the period between former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s dismissal in March 2018 and Pompeo’s swearing-in the following month. But he would come to the post with limited diplomatic experience dealing with the Kremlin. 

That’s it for today. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here or sign-up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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