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View more articles by Wang Son-taek
Wang Son-taek is diplomatic correspondent for South Korea's YTN news network and one of the country's leading journalists on North Korea and diplomatic affairs.
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News.
GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement), signed between Korea and Japan, is now a Northeast Asian ticking time bomb.
If the agreement expires on November 23, as Seoul says it will, the region’s security may be heavily shaken as a result.
From the U.S.’s perspective, the worry is that military readiness against the North Korean threat will be seriously damaged.
Plus, there will be a hole in the U.S.’s plans for balancing the region against the rise of China. It would ruin their cautious efforts in making a pro-U.S. multi-national security organization like NATO in Asia.
So why are two major allies pushing the U.S. into a corner? Will the agreement be left to die, as Seoul has said it will? The clues to these answers can be found in the past.
2012: CANCELLED, 50 MINUTES BEFORE SIGNING
GSOMIA became famous on June 29, 2012, when Korea decided to cancel the agreement 50 minutes before the signing ceremony with Japan. It was a diplomatic disaster.
However, reaction to the news from the countries in question was rather odd. The vibe coming from Seoul and Tokyo was overwhelmingly positive — it was the U.S. that was infuriated with the collapse of the deal.
So why did Mr. Lee Myung-bak, the then-President of South Korea, decide that he had to cancel GSOMIA?
He probably initially went along with the agreement because his diplomacy was based on pro-U.S. policies.
President Barack Obama had recently in late 2011 launched his new strategy of returning to Asia. This was because there were growing threats from North Korea and rising China in the region.
GSOMIA was facilitated in part by the North Korean shelling of Yeonpyeong in November 2010. Although South Korea wanted to retaliate, the U.S. was cautious about the potential outbreak of large-scale war between the two Koreas.
The U.S. military leadership recognized the volatility of the situation, and that they needed a new security arrangement through which they could control such situations in a more stable manner.
They originally dreamed of a multi-nation security organization like NATO — a trilateral military alliance between the U.S., Korea, and Japan could act as the core foundation for larger-scale cooperation in the future.
The U.S. thought that having two bilateral alliances was a waste of time and resources, and that GSOMIA was the first step toward a single alliance between the three nations.
President Lee decided to kill the agreement because one of the ruling party’s influential presidential candidates, a certain Ms. Park Geun-hye, strongly opposed it — she was reportedly afraid that negative public opinion surrounding the Japan-related policy may ruin her presidential campaign in December 2012.
While they may not be directly involved in the agreement, the U.S. is the real stakeholder here
2014: A DIPLOMATIC MANEUVER REVIVES THE PLAN
In early 2014, North Korea barraged the South, the U.S., and Japan with verbal provocations.
President Obama in March organized a trilateral summit between himself, President Park Geun-hye, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in The Hague, The Netherlands.
Mr. Obama encouraged his counterparts to cooperate more on the increased threat from the North, arguing that the two countries should reach a compromise by the end of the next year because 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of Korean liberation, or the end of World War II for Japan.
Ms. Park asserted that Koreans’ negative views of Japan were the major obstacle in an improvement of relations, and especially wanted Japan to show remorse concerning the comfort women issue.
Mr. Abe responded that Japan had apologized many times in the past, but Korea had endlessly nullified Japan’s efforts and demanded another apology.
In order to facilitate the diplomatic reconciliation, Mr. Obama provided Mr. Abe with an interesting incentive to take the first move on the issue.
He invited Abe to the U.S. to become the first Japanese Prime Minister to address both houses of the U.S. Congress, knowing that the speech could be recognized as one of Abe’s most glorious diplomatic achievements as the Prime Minister of Japan.
As for Ms. Park, the U.S. did not criticize her when she joined the 70th anniversary celebrations of victory over Japan in Beijing in September 2015, incentivizing her to accept another apology from Japan.
Negotiations over the comfort women issue were finally concluded on December 28, 2015.
The biggest obstacle assumed to be cleared, the U.S. began to push GSOMIA once again, and it was signed on November 23, 2016.
Park was in no position to resist the U.S.’s demands for the deal, partly because of promises with Obama about the resolution of comfort women issue and partly because leading up to late 2016 she was about to be impeached.
The U.S.’s six-year long efforts had paid off, and they were looking to move forward to the next stage of their plans to counter potential threats from North Korea and China by beginning to organize a real three-nation military alliance.
GSOMIA was the first step toward a single alliance between the three nations
2018: A NEW OBSTACLE PRESENTS ITSELF
A new obstacle to trilateral cooperation emerged on October 20, 2018, when the Korean supreme court ruled that Japanese companies should compensate Koreans victims of forced labor during the 1940s.
However, the Japanese government instructed the companies not to follow the decision, since they asserted that reparations for war-time issues had been settled in 1965 with the South Korean government.
As South Korea was moving toward the seizure of the property of Japanese companies, the Japanese government in July 2019 made the retaliatory/preventative measure of introducing a restriction on exports to the ROK, citing concerns over the effects of South Korea’s export control and restriction system on Japan’s national security.
Korea took reciprocal export restriction measures in August, and also announced that they would terminate GSOMIA since Japan was showing doubts on Korea’s national security and GSOMIA is a military information-sharing agreement.
FINDING A SOLUTION IN HISTORY
The GSOMIA row looks like a game of chicken. Korea and Japan blame each other and demand the other side move first — with whoever loses taking a hit domestically.
But GSOMIA isn’t a game of chicken. It’s a fight over history.
GSOMIA was in trouble because of export restrictions. These were introduced because of the Korean Supreme Court’s decision on compensation and forced labor during the Japanese occupation.
All these elements are intertwined, with the issue that started it all off being rooted in history. There can be no clear winner in this dispute over the past.
The other aspect of the GSOMIA issue is the role of the U.S. While they may not be directly involved in the agreement, they are the real stakeholder here. GSOMIA was proposed, adopted, and maintained by the U.S.
Therefore, it is the U.S. who must make the first move, even though this movement may be made secretly.
It was the South Korean government’s decision to terminate GSOMIA. There was an understanding between the leaders of the U.S., Japan, and Korea at The Hague in March 2015 that GSOMIA would be possible if the comfort women issue was resolved.
GSOMIA isn’t a game of chicken. It’s a fight over history
So Korea also shares the burden of GSOMIA, with that responsibility handed down and inherited by the current administration.
Judging from history, a roadmap for a solution to the GSOMIA dispute might go like this: the U.S. persuades Korea to propose a new interim idea on compensation, and then persuades Japan to accept the proposal and end the export restrictions. This would give Korea reason to extend GSOMIA.
With the renewal of GSOMIA, Korea and Japan can begin negotiations about this new idea. It’s not very important what the interim idea is — what is important is that Korea proposes a new idea, and that whatever it is the U.S. persuades Japan to accept it.
That’s how GSOMIA came to be adopted several years ago and that’s how this ticking time bomb can be defused.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Blue House