After Japan’s decision to exclude South Korea from a “whitelist” of trusted trading partners, the Korean government is reportedly considering the cancellation of its General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. The Korean government must notify Japan in writing by 90 days before the agreement expires, which is August 24, if it wants to ditch GSOMIA, which automatically comes up for extension every year.
Korea needs to take a closer look at the GSOMIA information-sharing pact, which it signed with Japan in 2016 at the bidding of the United States. Does the agreement help Korea’s security? Is it an agreement which can help Seoul cope with North Korea’s repeated missile launches? It is plain that the main beneficiaries of the GSOMIA are the US and Japan. However, there would be no major crisis in the security of South Korea even if Seoul decided to abrogate the agreement.
What eventually became the GSOMIA was first proposed to Japan in 1989 by the South Korean army, which was lacking information assets. However, after the expansion of radar systems devised to keep tabs on the North Korean military in the early 2000s, and after nuclear tests and missile launches by Pyongyang, Tokyo’s interest in the GSOMIA grew, and around 2010 it began to pressure South Korea to create an agreement.
The US was already insisting that it should formulate a joint missile defense alarm system with South Korea and Japan, and by the end of 2014, the three countries signed mutual information-sharing agreements. Furthermore, the US argued that South Korea should seek a more advanced agreement with Japan after North Korea stepped up military provocations in 2016; this led to pressure from the US to sign such a pact with Japan. The result was the GSOMIA, signed between Seoul and Tokyo behind closed doors just 15 days before then-president Park Geun-hye’s impeachment.
According to a report published by the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) in 2013, it is unlikely that South Korea will benefit directly from such levels of cooperation because in the event of a North Korean attack on the South, missiles will fly at low altitude. However, if North Korea were to attack Japan, the Japanese military would have more time to intercept missiles.
In addition, this year South Korea will introduce four high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones). This means that Japan can obtain high-resolution North Korean terrestrial imagery from South Korea whenever it wants based on GSOMIA. If Seoul decides not to renew this agreement with Tokyo, Japan will face much more difficulty gaining intelligence information regarding North Korea than it has for the past three years.
The purpose of the US establishing a security alliance with South Korea and Japan is a key part of Washington’s East Asian policy designed to keep a close eye on China. Therefore, if the US wants to keep South Korea from ditching the GSOMIA agreement, it must actively help resolve Tokyo’s economic retaliation against Seoul due to the Korean Supreme Court’s decision ordering two Japanese companies to compensate Koreans seconded into forced labor during World War II. While it may be argued that this dispute is between Korea and Japan and not the business of the White House, if it does nothing to put an end to Tokyo’s economic war with Seoul, it could make Korea think twice about signing an agreement that the US considers important for its Northeast Asia security policy to contain China.
Security experts view recent North Korean missile launches as threats to the security of Northeast Asia, and the Japanese government has been very critical of such launches, which it sees as posing a serious threat to its security. Think-tanks and research institutes have speculated that North Korea may already have higher-grade weapons than the international community currently estimates. Meanwhile, conservative politicians in South Korea argue that their country should have nuclear weapons and should actively respond to North Korea’s missile launches.
Recently Washington has said it is considering deploying new long-range missiles covering Northeast Asia, despite Chinese government assurances that it would closely monitor happenings on the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea, which attaches great importance to its alliance with the United States, does not want to cast aside the GSOMIA. However, at the moment there is no incentive for South Korea to renew the GSOMIA as Japan has recently publicly announced that it has lost confidence in Seoul as a security ally. No matter how powerful the US is, South Korea is no longer a country that always has to follow US demands and to do work for Japan that does not advance Korea’s own national interests. At a cabinet meeting shortly after the Japanese government announced that Korea would be excluded from its whitelist of trusted trading partners, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said: “Korea will never lose to Japan.”
History repeats itself. South Korea will stop importing key materials for the semiconductor industry from Japan and will fully support the needs of its own semiconductor industry. Even though the US has been keeping a close eye on this dispute between the two countries, Washington knows that Korea can abrogate the GSOMIA because of the Japanese government’s decision to exclude Korea from the whitelist, even though it may not want to.