On 23 November 2019, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between Japan and South Korea was due to expire, and right up until the last moment it was not clear whether Seoul would succumb to U.S. pressure. The United States views the GSOMIA as part of its strategy aimed at consolidating the trilateral security alliance.
On 8 November, ROK Minister of Foreign Affairs Kang Kyung-wha said that the South Korean government was not planning on changing its decision on the future of the agreement, during her speech at the National Assembly Special Committee on Budget and Accounts. It would be reviewed only if Tokyo stopped applying economic pressure on Seoul by various means, including limiting deliveries of strategic raw materials to the ROK. The spokesperson for South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense and director of the Blue House National Security Office Chung Eui-yong made similar statements. And during a dinner meeting with five leaders of South Korea’s main political parties, President Moon Jae-in said that Seoul’s decision not to renew the GSOMIA had been a matter of principle.
According to a survey conducted by the national television network MBC, the people of the Republic of Korea also agreed with their leadership, i.e. 52.1% of the respondents stated that the government needed to terminate the bilateral security agreement as planned.
In the meantime, during his visit to the ROK, Robert B. Abrams, the commander of United States Forces Korea (USFK), noted that not renewing the GSOMIA may send the wrong signal, i.e. “that the trilateral alliance among Seoul, Tokyo and Washington” was not strong enough to maintain regional security order. The key purpose of the GSOMIA is that it serves as a clear message to nations in the region that the ROK and Japan can put aside their historical differences to make stability and security in this area a matter of priority. A similar viewpoint had been expressed earlier by Mark A. Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Mark Esper, U.S. Secretary of Defense; David R. Stilwell, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs and other U.S. officials.
Mark Esper’s visit to Seoul was in large part aimed at ensuring that the agreement was renewed. In South Korea, he not only communicated with his ROK counterpart Jeong Kyeong-doo, but also had a half-an-hour meeting with Moon Jae-in on 16 November. During a press conference at ROK’s Ministry of National Defense, the U.S. Secretary of Defense said that the GSOMIA was “an effective tool for the United States, Korea and Japan to share timely information, particularly in times of war”. “Expiration of GSOMIA would have an impact on our effectiveness, so we have urged all sides to sit down to work out their differences. The only ones who benefit from the expiration of GSOMIA and continued friction between Seoul and Tokyo are Pyongyang and Beijing,” he added.
At the same time, a number of conservative media outlets, such as the Chosun Ilbo, spread rumors that “the White House was preparing a statement containing a very critical view of the Moon administration if Seoul” did not reverse its decision on the military intelligence agreement.
Then on the afternoon of 22 November 2019, Japanese news sources reported that South Korea had informed Japan about its decision to renew the GSOMIA. And ROK media outlets wrote that, in exchange, Japan had supposedly agreed to review its July decision to remove South Korea from its list of trusted trade partners.
This piece of news turned out to be accurate, six hours before the agreement was due to expire (we could even say almost at the last minute), Moon Jae-in had chosen to renew it. Kim You-geun, the first deputy director of the National Security Office (NSO) of the Blue House, stated this decision had been made on condition that the GSOMIA could be terminated at any point in time at Seoul’s discretion.
In addition, the South Korean side chose to withdraw its request for a bilateral consultation with Japan at the World Trade Organization (WTO) over Tokyo’s trade restrictions while the dialogue between the two sides was ongoing. According to some sources, the parties also discussed the possibility of conducting high-level negotiations going forward on the issue of compensation for South Korean victims of wartime forced labor during the Japanese rule over Korea. In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that both sides agreed to start working-level negotiations in the near future.
The United States welcomed this decision. William Coleman, the spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, said that Northeast Asia was a safer place when the United States, Japan and South Korea worked together in the spirit of cooperation and solidarity.
The reactions towards the government’s decision in political circles in South Korea varied. The ruling party and the conservative opposition viewed the leadership’s actions in a positive light while the progressive forces in the nation called the decision a “diplomatic humiliation”. The United States, which had actively tried to exert its influence so as to facilitate the resolution of the issues between Seoul and Tokyo, welcomed the decision and stated that they would continue to work on the trilateral security partnership with the ROK and Japan. Moderate media outlets noted that, for now, it was only possible to talk about the opportunity for negotiations that opened up recently. After all, the differences between the two nations’ bargaining positions are still significant. Even the government-funded Yonhap News Agency pointed out that the aforementioned outcome was a serious diplomatic victory for Washington, which had recently applied enormous pressure on both sides so that they renewed the GSOMIA.
Japan’s daily newspaper Asahi Shimbun also reported that the ROK had decided to renew the military intelligence agreement because of strong pressure from the United States to do so.
Oh Young-jin, a famous conservative columnist, even went as far as to say that this particular step by the United States was the last straw that “broke” the alliance between the nations. He also blamed Donald Trump’s greed for the outcome and wrote that the return to the Pax Americana age was highly unlikely.
What comments could we make about all of this? The author of this article was not the only person who stated that Moon Jae-in had painted himself into a corner. According to political science professor Shin Yul at Myongji University, reversing the GSOMIA decision could “lead to public backlash”, while terminating the pact might “deepen concerns over a rift in the Seoul-Washington alliance”, which may completely alienate the United States. And there are a lot of means at Donald Trump’s disposal that could be used to make Moon Jae-in’s life more difficult, starting with a 5-fold increase in the price tag for stationing U.S. troops in South Korea.
Since the ROK President is not only a left-wing politician but a populist too, as expected, Seoul gave into U.S. pressure and, at the same time, tried to portray the move as a diplomatic victory for South Korea (albeit not very successfully). The military intelligence pact was not terminated and there have not been any obvious concessions from Japan.
Now everything will depend on whether the two sides will be able to come to an agreement on the export restrictions. And if they fail to do so (and Tokyo is not planning on reversing its position on this issue), Seoul may attempt to terminate the GSOMIA and the conflict will enter a new phase.
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“.