SEOUL >> Squeezed between a growing North Korean threat and a shaky alliance with the United States, South Korea must decide this week whether its national pride and deep frustrations with Japan are worth killing a major symbol of their security cooperation with Washington.
After exchanging haymakers with Japan over history and trade, South Korea expanded the feud to military matters in August when it gave three-months’ notice on its plans to terminate a 2016 bilateral military intelligence-sharing agreement it signed after years of prodding by the United States.
The announcement drew unusually blunt criticism from Washington, which described Seoul’s decision to end the pact as detrimental to the security of its Asian allies and increasing risk to U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
Seoul has since said it could keep the agreement if Tokyo reverses a decision to downgrade South Korea’s status as a trade partner.
But neither country has been budging from their positions, with last-minute meetings between their diplomats and military officials ending without breakthroughs.
A look at the General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement, or GSOMIA, which expires on Saturday unless Seoul renews it:
Washington considers the Seoul-Tokyo agreement as critical for their three-way security cooperation to cope with North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat and balance China’s growing influence.
The arrangement makes it easier for South Korea to access information gathered by Japan’s intelligence satellites, radars, patrol planes and other high-tech systems, which are needed for analyzing North Korean missile tests and submarines.
For Japan, South Korea has value because its military sensors are positioned to detect North Korean launches sooner, and also because of information the country gathers from spies, North Korean defectors and other human sources.
Visiting Seoul last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the agreement facilitates fast and effective information exchanges between the three countries, which would be crucial in times of war. He said friction between the two U.S. allies would only benefit “Pyongyang and Beijing.”
Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said the termination of the pact would “risk sending a wrong message” about the strength of the U.S. alliance network in the region, echoing similar comments by Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono.
South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo has endorsed keeping the pact for security reasons. But South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday reiterated that Seoul wants Tokyo to bend first.
“If Japan doesn’t want to GSOMIA to end, it should cooperate with South Korea to find solutions to problems such as the export controls,” he said in a televised townhall meeting.
Despite the U.S. push to save the agreement, most South Korean analysts say Seoul will likely let the agreement expire. There’s no clear way for South Korea to renew the agreement without losing face.
South Korea continues to tie the fate of the pact to Japan’s trade restrictions, which it sees as a retaliation against South Korean court rulings that called for Japanese companies to offer reparations to aging South Korean plaintiffs for their forced labor during World War II.
But it’s unlikely that Japan will restore South Korea on its “white list” of favored trade partners unless the countries settle their dispute over the forced laborers, which probably won’t be soon.
Tokyo insists that all compensation matters were settled by a 1965 treaty that normalized relations between the countries and accuses Seoul of continuously opening the book on issues that were supposed to be resolved.
It’s hard for South Korea to make major concessions on history issues amid heightened public resentment over Japan’s brutal colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945.
Du Hyeogn Cha, an expert at Seoul’s Kyung Hee University, said it would have been more productive if Seoul and Tokyo had spent the time since August discussing possibility of a new intelligence arrangement, instead of squabbling over a pact Seoul had already declared dead.
The Trump administration’s relentless demands on Seoul demonstrate a profound lack of respect for an ally, Cha said.
For Seoul, extending the pact with Tokyo could create its own set of problems, including angry reactions from Beijing, which suspended Chinese group tours to South Korea among other economic retaliation measures after South Korea decided to host a new U.S. anti-missile system in 2016.
“Diplomatic declarations aren’t a child’s play — only state actors like North Korea change them on the fly” said Cha, an ex-intelligence secretary to former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
“South Korea shouldn’t have threatened to terminate GSOMIA in the first place, considering its security interests, but it’s spilled water now.”
Shin Beomchul, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, says GSOMIA is worth saving, but it would require a close and effective intervention from Washington. The Trump administration has largely maintained a hands-off approach as its two allies rapidly escalated their feud.
VIEW FROM TOKYO
South Korea’s decision to terminate the pact came as a surprise to Japan, which didn’t anticipate Seoul to make a move that would anger America.
Some Japanese analysts propose similar ideas to Shin’s, saying the countries could negotiate a one-time extension of the pact while committing to diplomatic progress over the history row.
Kenichiro Sasae, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States, said the scrapping of the pact would be a major setback to the U.S. alliance network in the region.
“A provisional extension can be a possibility, and (such) a decision by the South Korean government would improve the environment of negotiations,” said Sasae, who now heads the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a Tokyo-based think tank.
Others say the debacle over the pact is just one of many signs showing a widening divergence between Seoul and Tokyo over North Korea, China and other security issues.
“For South Korea, the North is an enemy but also a future partner,” said Junya Nishino, a professor at Keio University in Tokyo.
Katsutoshi Kawano, Japan’s former chiefs of staff, said the pact wouldn’t be effective anyway if “South Korea doesn’t consider North Korea a threat.”
Critics say Seoul dug itself into a hole by threatening to terminate the pact while desperately seeking U.S. help to end its dispute with Tokyo, a brinkmanship that clearly damaged its trust with Washington.
The squabbling over the pact comes at a delicate time for the U.S.-South Korea alliance. There’s growing frustration among South Koreans over President Donald Trump’s persistent calls for the country to pay significantly more to help cover the costs of keeping 28,000 U.S. troops in South Korea.
There’s also concern that Trump, after already suspending major U.S.-South Korean military exercises he described as “ridiculous and expensive,” may seek to reduce the U.S. military presence in South Korea to accommodate a deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Moon Seong Mook, a former South Korean military official, said a scrapped GSOMIA would further embolden North Korea.
Amid a standstill in nuclear negotiations with Washington, North Korea since May has tested a slew of new solid-fuel missiles that are potentially capable of evading missile defense systems or being launched from submarines, continuing to expand its ability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan.
South Korea could also find it harder to respond to China and Russia’s increasing air patrols over waters between the Korean Peninsula and Japan, which experts say are designed to test security cooperation between the U.S. allies.
President Moon on Tuesday repeated that Japan’s trade curbs, which were based on vague security concerns over South Korea’s export controls on sensitive materials, forced Seoul to rethink whether it could keep sharing sensitive military information with a partner that questions its reliability.