The military intelligence-sharing pact between South Korea and Japan, called the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), is going to expire on 23 November 2019. As per Article 21 of GSOMIA, any party can walk out of the agreement with a three-month notice, which, in this case, was given by South Korea to Japan on 22 August.
There have been several unsuccessful bilateral attempts between the South Koreans and the Japanese to resolve the issue involving meetings and delegation visits at the highest levels of government. The latest meeting was between South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kono in Bangkok on 17 November. In all of these exchanges, both parties have just stated their respective positions without showing any sign of flexibility. What really led to the breakdown of this agreement?
It is important to consider the context, causes, and consequences of the termination of GSOMIA. Equally, it must be remembered that in the larger picture of bilateral security relations between Japan and South Korea, GSOMIA has a very small role to play. South Korea has similar agreements with around 30 countries, and most of these are largely inactive. In the case of the South Korea-Japan GSOMIA, which was concluded in November 2016, there has reportedly been insignificant critical information-sharing so far. In fact, if bilateral political relations continue to be strained, there is any case very little chance of them contributing to any substantial intelligence-sharing. However, if relations improve, such sharing can be made possible even without GSOMIA. In addition, both countries are part of the Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement (TISA) with the US, through which important intelligence is shared indirectly.
The real context of the termination of the agreement by South Korea thus are issues that are found outside of it, that is, a deterioration of relations with Japan on concerns such as dealing with North Korea, comfort women, compensation to forced Korean labourers, and South Korea’s removal from Japan’s ‘white list’.
South Korea is unhappy with what it sees as Shinzo Abe’s spoiler role by insisting on a tough approach to North Korea, or by disproportionately highlighting the abductees’ issue, when the Moon Jae-in administration has made several attempts at engagement with Pyongyang and worked to bring the Trump administration on board. The Moon government is also not on board with what Japan considers the final and conclusive agreement on comfort women, of November 2015, and seeks its renegotiation.
The recent bilateral salvo began with a demand for compensation to Korean forced labour by courts in South Korean in October-November 2018. Japan says that such compensation was already provided to the South Korean government on the basis of the 1965 agreement. South Korea’s argument is that this compensation was a judicial decision that the government does not have a say in. In fact, in June 2019, Seoul proposed the established of a joint fund to provide said compensation, but this was rejected by Tokyo. Japan removing South Korea from its ‘white list’ on the grounds of some Japanese exports being leaked to Iran, UAE, and North Korea deepened the bilateral rift. The trade war between the two countries has escalated into public outrage in both Japan and South Korea, which has had a severe impact on their people-to-people exchanges as well. In this context, the Moon administration’s decision to terminate GSOMIA is a strategic move to put it in a bargaining position with Japan.
Another strategic South Korean calculation motivating the termination is directed west, towards the US. To continue with the GSOMIA, which is also in the US’ interest, Seoul would like Washington to consider: one, more flexibility in its position on North Korea; two, that full cost-sharing with the US for their troops stationed in South Korea is unreasonable; and three, the possibility of limiting or restraining Shinzo Abe’s aggressive approach towards South Korea.
South Korea’s decision to terminate the agreement is not a hasty one. Through it, it seeks to address what it sees as unhelpful approaches adopted by the US and South Korea towards regional security. If its objectives are achieved, this will be an important milestone for South Korean foreign policy. If no change is achieved, GSOMIA’s termination by itself is unlikely to have any significant consequences.
The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, JNU, & Visiting Fellow, IPCS