News Thursday evening that South Korea would end the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) — a controversial intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan — has rocked the region, raising concerns about the future of security in Northeast Asia.
The move marks a significant escalation of a now months-long row between South Korea and Japan — a row rooted in historical tensions but which is now increasingly impacting the global economy and trilateral cooperation on North Korea intelligence-gathering.
So what might the broader impact of this move be, and how might it affect the ROK-U.S. alliance and broader North Korea policy?
The following experts responded in time for NK News‘s deadline:
- Daniel Pinkston, lecturer in international relations with Troy University
- Go Myong-hyun, research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies
- Mintaro Oba, former Korea Desk Officer at the U.S. Department of State
What do you think has motivated South Korea to pull out of the GSOMIA now?
Daniel Pinkston: The short answer is that Korea took this step in response to Japan’s removal of Korea from a so-called white-list of countries that receive automatic approval for the importation of sensitive dual-use materials from Japan. The Abe government accused the ROK of being a national security risk for negligence in the enforcement of export control regulations.
However, the open secret is that the Abe government removed the ROK from the list in retaliation for a South Korean court ruling late last year awarding compensation to elderly South Korean citizens who had been conscripted labor for a Japanese firm during WWII, and in retaliation for the Moon administration’s repudiation of a bilateral agreement signed during Park Geun-hye’s tenure in an attempt to resolve the outstanding comfort women issue.
Some might view Seoul’s withdrawal as short-sighted or spiteful, but the Moon government was in a difficult position. How do you justify extending the GSOMIA when Tokyo has accused Seoul of being untrustworthy in the realm of export controls, an important element of national security cooperation?
Go Myong-hyun: Moon’s intention behind terminating the agreement possibly has more to do with the United States than Japan. It is likely that he has calculated that by threatening to quit the nascent trilateral security cooperation in Northeast Asia the United States would act more proactively, such as by pressuring Japan to reverse its export control measures against South Korea.
After all, the real force behind the agreement has been the United States all along, never making a secret of its strong desire to strengthen the trilateral security cooperation in Northeast Asia. GSOMIA was just the first step towards such an aim. So Moon’s move will surely displease South Korea’s most important and in practical terms only ally in the region today.
The Moon administration evidently made a calculation that it was domestically necessary to withdraw from GSOMIA — and the appropriate, reciprocal level of response to Japan’s actions.
Korea-Japan relations is an eye for an eye kind of world, and Seoul decided to take its eye.
What impact does this move likely have on the ROK-U.S. alliance and broader relations between Seoul and Washington?
Daniel Pinkston: It’s certainly negative, but it’s not the only negative trend. The last round of bilateral negotiations on the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) ended late last year. The SMA represents ROK contributions to the hosting of USFK, which the ROK has done since the early 1990s.
Past agreements covered five-year periods, but last year the two sides were only able to agree to a one-year deal. This year the ROK will contribute about $1 billion, and the two sides are to begin negotiations for agreement very soon.
There have been rumors of the U.S. asking for about $5 billion per year, which I believe is unacceptable politically in South Korea. Seoul has the ability to pay more for hosting USFK, and to make more contributions to international security in the realms of counter-terrorism, counter-piracy, cyber-security, climate change, infectious diseases and public health, etc. However, the National Assembly has to ratify SMAs, and there are limits to what can be passed.
National Assembly elections are in April next year, and if the SMA negotiations drag on until the end of 2019 (which they will), and if they are characterized by rancorous turmoil and broad disagreement, the SMA can become an electoral issue. There are also bilateral trade issues that could worsen in the shadow of weakening multilateralism.
Go Myong-hyun: Again, despite the perception that GSOMIA is a bilateral agreement between Seoul and Tokyo, the U.S. is a major stakeholder, and the decision to terminate the agreement has essentially destroyed U.S.’s investment in security architecture in Northeast Asia.
And given that South Korea is diplomatically isolated in Northeast Asia nowadays, with impasse in inter-Korean dialogue and tensions with Japan, South Korea will paradoxically need the U.S. more than ever.
So it is likely that Seoul will overcompensate by unconditionally accepting U.S. demands for much higher defense burden-sharing and participating in the joint patrol in the Strait of Hormuz.
Mintaro Oba: To understand why official Washington is going to react so much more negatively to the collapse of GSOMIA than anything else in Korea-Japan relations, you need to know this: GSOMIA is the Holy Grail of the U.S. alliance system in Northeast Asia — the once-elusive, grand symbol of security cooperation that the United States spent years and years pursuing.
For Asia hands here in Washington, it’s more about the message embedded in South Korea tossing aside that key fixture of the alliance system.
To many, it’s spitting in the face of a very core U.S. security interest, signaling to China and North Korea that critical trilateral and bilateral alliance cooperation can’t even move beyond the most basic of agreements without succumbing to Korea-Japan tensions, and reinforcing a dangerous precedent that security cooperation — an area once fairly insulated from politics and treated more pragmatically — can be held hostage to those tensions.
I’m not saying it’s right or fair — it’s really not — but it’s important to recognize that withdrawing from GSOMIA is the red line in Korea-Japan relations for a lot of people in Washington, and that will seriously hurt South Korea’s room for maneuver here.
So, Seoul either badly miscalculated about how Washington would handle GSOMIA withdrawal, or it just felt it was a risk it had to take. Either way, no matter how carefully worded the U.S. statements we see, expect a real souring of Washington’s attitude toward Seoul and the U.S.-Korea alliance, perhaps even spillover effects in cost-sharing talks, North Korea policy coordination, and other areas.
And we can probably expect more sympathy within the U.S. government toward the Japanese perspective.
How will it impact the allies ability to share information and intelligence on North Korea? What kind of impact will that have on policy-making?
Daniel Pinkston: It makes things more difficult and cumbersome. People need to remember that GSOMIA does not oblige either party to share intelligence; it simply provides the channel and mechanism to share if either side chooses to do so.
Of course, this is more problematic in the case of a sudden unforeseen crisis that creates the need for intelligence sharing, but without the systems and protocols to do it.
Go Myong-hyun: GSOMIA is not a special agreement, but it constitutes the basis for a more complete security cooperation among the three countries. For instance, GSOMIA is required for the smooth functioning of the missile defense system in Korea and Japan. Additionally, Japan’s radar and satellite capabilities augment allies’ ability of real-time tracking of North Korean missile launches.
All these will be undermined now — although as for actual intelligence sharing there is still the Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement (TISA), in which the U.S. serves as the central coordinator of intelligence between Korea and Japan. So there will still be intelligence sharing, albeit not directly and not in real-time.
But the biggest impact will take place in the U.S. Asia-Pacific policy domain. Seoul’s move undermines the U.S.’s vision for security architecture in Northeast Asia, and may force the U.S. to focus more on its alliance with Japan over South Korea.
Mintaro Oba: GSOMIA served a useful practical purpose in creating a direct bilateral channel for military sharing info relevant to North Korea. But frankly, GSOMIA was hardly reaching its full potential and it’s unclear how much of value Korea and Japan shared.
The larger issue is that GSOMIA was the key first step toward, in the wildest of the U.S.’s dreams, truly ramping up bilateral security cooperation and being able to deter China and North Korea more effectively. If we can’t even have GSOMIA, that dramatically undermines the value proposition of the U.S. alliance system in Northeast Asia as a deterrent and counter to potential Chinese and North Korean aggression.
How might the termination affect inter-Korean relations, and how might Pyongyang interpret the move?
Daniel Pinkston: I think there are several more important variables that will be affecting North-South relations negatively in the years ahead, and I don’t think Seoul’s termination of the GSOMIA with Tokyo directly affects inter-Korean relations per se.
But it’s a win for Pyongyang. I’m sure people in Pyongyang are popping the caps off their bottles of soju, 뱀술 (snake liquor), Suntory whiskey, Taedonggang beer, or whatever they’re drinking up there tonight to celebrate one more step in the march to complete the revolution and achieve the final victory!
Pyongyang will be even more overbearing, having sensed Seoul’s diplomatic isolation. It will likely shout louder for South Korea to downgrade its security alliance with the U.S. as the condition for restarting inter-Korean dialogue.
China and Russia will also regard South Korea as the weak link in the U.S. alliance system in Northeast Asia, and pressure South Korea to explicitly commit to the “three no’s”: no additional THAAD deployment, no participation in the missile defense system (now de facto achieved by termination of GSOMIA), and finally no trilateral alliance.
Terminating GSOMIA, despite its rather prosaic nature, could have severe negative implications for the long term security of South Korea.
Mintaro Oba: Pyongyang is always happy to see South Korea fail to coordinate for its own good with the United States and Japan. It makes Seoul a much less credible player in, say, a future war or instability situation that requires combined deterrence or action. And Pyongyang is always happy to poke at those fissures in public.
But as far as inter-Korean relations, I don’t think North Korea is actually making any calculations based on Korea-Japan relations.
It is more taking into account where things are with U.S.-North Korea diplomacy and considering how to leverage inter-Korean relations and put pressure on Seoul to advance its goals with the United States. That pattern will continue, with little real heed to GSOMIA.
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: ROK MND