While continuing to monitor reports on the confrontation between Seoul and Tokyo, we are attentively following what effect it is having on regional security. And first and foremost, the issue is whether South Korea will renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan or not.
We would like to remind our readers that South Korea has pacts on exchanging military information with 21 nations, including the Russian Federation and the USA. Owing to the GSOMIA, signed by Japan and the ROK in 2016, Seoul and Tokyo have been able to share information about the DPRK with each other without involving the United States. But on 22 August, South Korea decided not to renew it. Officially, the pact will remain in force until 24 November 2019, but de facto it is no longer adhered to.
As a result, after the recent test of an SLBM (a submarine-launched ballistic missile) by the DPRK, ROK’s Ministry of National Defense requested that Japan share the details about the incident, in accordance with the GSOMIA. But such information is meant to be shared automatically as per the agreement. And the fact that they did not do so was evidenced by the bigger than normal discrepancy in details about the launch. Citing sources in the military, Yonhap News Agency also reported that South Korea and Japan had not exchanged information regarding the DPRK launch of a medium-range missile with each other.
Still, Washington has been promoting cooperation between the two countries in this sphere and has also actively exerted pressure on South Korea to collaborate with Tokyo. During the meeting back on 28 August 2019 with Harry B. Harris (the U.S. Ambassador to South Korea), ROK’s First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-Young urged Washington to refrain from making any public comments online regarding Seoul’s decision to stop sharing intelligence with Tokyo.
However, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell has continued to emphasize that the United States is exerting efforts to resolve the conflict between South Korea and Japan, and will go on encouraging Seoul and Tokyo to mend their relationship, hence highlighting the importance of the trilateral alliance.
Later on, during David R. Stilwell’s visit to Japan in October 2019, he earnestly appealed to Tokyo and Seoul to find a creative solution to the GSOMIA issues and urged South Korea to renew the agreement as it would undoubtedly be beneficial for all parties involved. After all economic and trade issues should not spill over into the security sphere.
John Rood, the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, urged the Republic of Korea to “reconsider its decision to terminate” the GSOMIA and encouraged Seoul and Tokyo to work out their differences via dialogue.
In October 2019, David F. Helvey, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, made similar appeals to the parties involved. “We strongly believe in the integrity of our mutual defense, and our security ties must persist despite the frictions in other areas of the South Korea and Japan relationship…. When our allies ― Korea and Japan ― feud, the only winners are our competitors,” he said.
Tokyo has already expressed its willingness to renew the GSOMIA because Japanese politicians and experts think that its termination would have a negative effect on the security of their nation. In their opinion, the ROK is at an advantage in comparison to Japan in that it can find out details about North Korea’s missile launches at an earlier stage.
Meanwhile, during an interview with China’s newspaper Global Times, Moon Chung-in, the special advisor to South Korea’s President on unification, foreign affairs and national security, openly said that the decision not to renew the GSOMIA “was largely because of Tokyo’s deep distrust of Seoul”. “If Japan doesn’t trust us, how can we exchange sensitive military intelligence with them?” he asked. In addition, in Moon Chung-in’s opinion, “the South Korean decision jeopardizes the trilateral alliance between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul” and the United States is in part responsible for the current state of affairs because it does not wish to take ROK’s side in the trade war. Just as Kim Hyun-chong, Moon Chung-in believes that the consequences of Seoul’s decision not to renew the GSOMIA will be short-lived and have a limited effect, because South Korea could use a trilateral information-sharing agreement (TISA) as an alternative.
Another separate and interesting question is what is the stance of not ROK’s politicians but its military leadership on all of this. One day prior to the decision not to renew the GSOMIA, ROK’s Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo had spoken “highly of the strategic value” of the agreement that helps “keep track of any potential nuclear threats from North Korea”. However, a few days later, he reconsidered this stance by saying that the pact was “not of great value in terms of exchanging military information”.
In the opinion of journalists from the Korea Times, political pressure from the Blue House accounted for the change in the views. Afterwards, during a National Assembly meeting, the Minister of National Defense said that “the quasi-military alliance among China, Russia and North Korea” would welcome the GSOMIA nullification based on the assumption “that South Korea’s withdrawal from the pact” would not “enhance the trilateral security alliance among Seoul, Tokyo and Washington”.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said that Jeong Kyeong-doo’s remarks had been “inappropriate”. “It is not a matter that can be judged in such a reckless manner,” he added. As a result, “the internal discord among government authorities” has deepened, according to the Korea Times. The newspaper’s sources have reported that ROK’s Prime Minister and South Korea’s ministries of Foreign Affairs and National Defense support the renewal of the pact, while the National Security Council opposes it. In fact, Kim Hyun-chong, the second deputy chief to the President’s security advisor, convinced his boss Chung Eui-yong and then Moon Jae-in himself to make the tough decision with regards to the GSOMIA.
Kim Hyun-chong has stated that the trilateral information-sharing agreement (TISA) between the United States, Japan and South Korea would be enough to meet the nation’s security needs. However, within the TISA framework, the sides only negotiate the terms of sharing intelligence on an “individual basis”, and in a crisis situation any delays in exchanging essential information could be very costly.
Kim headed the negotiations on the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement during Roh Moo-hyun’s presidency, and is viewed as an experienced expert on trade, but he also likes getting involved in political and security issues. Hence, there is an opinion that he and his team may possess more authority and have more power on the President than the government.
In such a context, the newspaper highlighted the fact that a few days after Seoul announced its intention to officially terminate the GSOMIA, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon supposedly told Japanese lawmakers that South Korea would reconsider its decision if Japan eliminated its trade restrictions before the agreement expired. However, the Prime Minister’s Office denied these rumors and issued a statement saying that although the Prime Minister had spoken on the phone with Japanese lawmakers, the GSOMIA had not been discussed.
In the meantime, on 4 November during a meeting of the National Defense Committee of ROK’s National Assembly, Jeong Kyeong-doo stated that it was only worth salvaging the GSOMIA if it were at least in some way beneficial for the country’s security. The Minister of National Defense also noted that it was also important to resolve issues associated with Japan’s decision to restrict exports of strategically important goods to South Korea under the pretext of security.
In conclusion, it is curious that on 15 October 2019, a “group of conservative lawyers and retired military generals filed a constitutional petition” “arguing that the government’s move not to renew” the GSOMIA was against the Constitution, “due to its possible violation of people’s rights to life and pursuit of happiness”. However, the Constitutional Court dismissed the petition without hearing the case. The court explained its decision as follows: “It is difficult to acknowledge that the termination of GSOMIA will result in South Korea being engulfed in an invasive war in the future. It cannot be said that there is a possibility of the end of the accord violating people’s rights to life and pursuit of happiness”.
The agreement ends in a couple of weeks and the author sees that Moon Jae-in’s arbitrary actions have served to entrap him. The nation’s security is currently at risk, there is discord among politicians about this, and, in the meantime, the United States is already applying some pressure on South Korea to “take their words back”, which would mean a loss of face for the ROK’s government and poor approval ratings.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D, Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.