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SEOUL — Japan is willing “at any time” to sign a military intelligence-sharing agreement with South Korea that was scuttled last summer amid negative public opinion, Tokyo’s top diplomat in Seoul says.

Ambassador Koro Bessho, speaking to South Korean and Japanese reporters Wednesday, said the agreement — and overall closer military cooperation between the two countries in general — is needed to act as a deterrent to North Korea.

“North Korea has threatened a pre-emptive nuclear attack against South Korea and Japan,” he said. “Against the backdrop of North Korea’s threats, there is the need to forge a close coordination among Japan, South Korea and the U.S.

“While the South Korea-U.S. alliance and the Japan-U.S. alliance are solid, a defense cooperation between South Korea and Japan is still vulnerable,” he said.

Seoul and Tokyo had planned to sign the intelligence-sharing agreement last summer, but the South Korean government postponed it following a public outcry.

Tokyo’s motives are still viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility, because of Japan’s brutal 35-year colonization of the Korean peninsula, which ended in 1945.

Two particular issues have particularly strained relations in recent years: Japan’s use of Korean sex slaves during colonization, and the dispute over ownership of two tiny islands about halfway between the two countries.

Japan has apologized for its enslavement of South Korean “comfort women,” but many South Koreans see those apologies as inadequate and insincere.

Last summer, Lee Myung-bak made the first-ever visit by a South Korean president to the disputed islands — called Dokdo by South Korea and Takeshima by Japan. He also urged Tokyo to take responsibility for its imperial past.

“Japan is a close neighbor. It is also a close ally that shares the same values and it is also an important partner,” he said. “However, it needs to be pointed out that the shackles of Japan’s past hold back the move towards the future, not only for Korea and Japan but for the northeast Asian community in general.”

A spokesman for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said Thursday the intelligence-sharing agreement is needed to ensure security and stability on the peninsula, but it is “too early” for Seoul to sign it due to the lack of public support.

Bessho admitted earlier this year that relations between the two countries had reached their rockiest point in years and urged both sides to keep historical grievances from becoming diplomatic issues.

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Yoo Kyong Chang is a reporter/translator covering the U.S. military from Camp Humphreys, South Korea. She graduated from Korea University and also studied at the University of Akron in Ohio.

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