In the latest escalation of a long-running and savagely bitter bilateral dispute that has already bounced from the historical space to the economic, Seoul took a cleaver on Thursday to a military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo, shifting the damage into the military space.
In Northeast Asia – a global flashpoint of critical economic and strategic importance, where China, North Korea and Russia face off against Japan, South Korea and the United States – the pact was the only official tie binding the militaries of Seoul and Tokyo.
Tokyo has already expressed its displeasure with Seoul’s actions. No US reaction has yet been registered, though Seoul has indicated that it will explain its actions to Washington.
The GSOMIA – the General Security of Military Information Agreement – was up for renewal on Saturday, but Seoul, in a move that had been widely signaled, announced late Thursday that it was “terminating” the pact. Given the three-month time window through which a cancellation must be notified, that means the pact will expire in November.
GSOMIA was the brainchild of the Barack Obama’s administration, which sought to promote greater defense cooperation between its two Northeast Asian allies. Both shared separate treaties with Washington, but no official ties linked Seoul and Tokyo until GSOMIA went into effect in 2016. It has been renewed yearly since then.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono called the move “extremely regrettable,” warning that it “completely misreads the security situation in Northeast Asia.” North Korea has, in less than a month, carried out test firings of short-range ballistic missiles that can hit both Japan and South Korea.
Earlier this week in Beijing, Kono had told his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha that the pact should be maintained – even though the two had failed to paper over other differences, on historical and trade issues, that divide their capitals.
Kang said today that she was preparing to communicate Seoul’s position to the United States. The US security establishment may well be displeased by the latest breach between Seoul and Tokyo.
In a note sent to foreign reporters, South Korea’s presidential office outlined the reasons for its action.
“The Government of the Republic of Korea concluded that the Government of Japan has brought about fundamental changes to the environment for security cooperation between the two countries, by removing [South Korea] from the [white list of preferred export partners]. The rationale was that a national security problem had arisen due to a breach of trust, yet no concrete evidence to support these allegations had been presented.”
That was a reference to the recent trade war that has been ignited between Seoul and Tokyo.
The Abe-Moon war
Today’s action by Seoul opens a new front in a bilateral struggle that has been raging between Seoul and Tokyo since the early 1990s, but which had largely remained restricted to the historical-diplomatic space until 2017.
For three decades, the two Northeast Asian democracies and US allies engaged in heated disputes over Japan’s 1910-1945 rule of the Korean Peninsula. Until 2017, the dispute could be broadly outlined thusly: Korea raises an issue over colonial history; Japan offers compensation and/or apologizes; Korea calls the compensation inappropriate and questions the sincerity of the apology. The cycle then repeats.
Still, until 2017, the dispute remained largely confined to the historical-realm – occasionally spilling into the diplomatic space, such as when Korean activist groups raised statues of “comfort women” outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul and its consulate in the southern city of Busan.
In 2017, the leftist and populist Moon Jae-in administration took power. It soon opened fire against the rightist and revisionist Shinzo Abe administration in Tokyo, unilaterally overturning a 2015 agreement and compensation package on “comfort women” agreed between the Abe administration and the previous Park Geun-hye administration in Seoul.
Although the Japanese and South Korean militaries had, according to multiple uniformed sources who spoke to Asia Times on condition of anonymity, long operated amicably, these ties too came under strain in the new political dynamic.
A Japanese warship was refused permission to fly its “Rising Sun” ensign during a South Korean naval review and a South Korean destroyer “painted” a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft that was overflying it with a missile target radar.
Last October, the bilateral dispute shifted to the economic space. Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that Japanese firms must compensate Korean wartime forced laborers. A furious Tokyo asserted that the issue of forced labor had been dealt with in a 1965 treaty/compensation package. The court followed up this year by seizing assets.
After Seoul ignored Tokyo’s demands for third-party arbitration, Tokyo, in July, emplaced restrictions on key tech exports to Korea, and this month, followed up by removing Korea from a list of favored trade partners. As its rationale, Tokyo cited a lack of trust in Korea’s export oversight of dual-use technologies.
That reasoning was what the South Korean presidential office was referring to in its communique on Thursday.
Seoul has also said that it has higher grades on export oversight in related international treaties and bodies. Seoul retaliated by removing Japan from its own list of favored trade partners, and this week placed restrictions on Japanese food imports, citing the hazard of radiation poisoning from the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Defense experts have been puzzled as to why South Korea has put GSOMIA on the chopping block in the history/diplomatic/trade dispute.
While Seoul appears to see GSOMIA as leverage in its multi-front dispute with Tokyo, two security experts, writing in Asia Times this week, questioned the logic of the contention.
They noted that Japan has capabilities in satellite reconnaissance – essential for viewing North Korean missile sites and test-firing trajectories – and anti-submarine warfare – essential given North Korea’s significant submarine fleet and its latest moves to develop subs capable of launching ballistic missiles – that South Korea does not possess.
As such, the two experts argued that if Seoul axed GSOMIA, it would be “cutting off its nose to spite its face.”
The two also speculated that the South Korean presidency might be at odds with its own Defense Ministry over the GSOMIA issue.
Moreover, Japan is the only nation that – as far as is known – has managed to place an asset deep inside North Korea’s Kim regime. Asia Times has learned that Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef who served both the late Kim Jong Il and his son and current North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, had links to Japanese intelligence.
Politics before defense?
Still, even if Seoul’s action is illogical in the defense space, it makes sense in terms of domestic politics.
The Moon administration, which took power after massive protests led to the impeachment and overthrow of the Park administration, has made clear that it takes its lead from the public. The public is currently in a strongly anti-Japanese mood, undertaking boycotts of Japanese products and travel. Signs and banners calling for the axing of GSOMIA have been seen at demonstrations in Seoul, and officials have mentioned the possibility of ending the agreement.
And a think tank affiliated to Moon’s political machine, the Democratic Party of Korea, has suggested that the fostering of anti-Japanese sentiment could be favorable for the party in next year’s National Assembly elections.