Seoul and Tokyo at loggerheads: A Crisis of East Asian Security?

Colin Jun is a first-year IR student at King’s from South Korea. His interest relates to the vital issues facing the Asia-Pacific region, from security concerns of East Asia to development in SE Asia.

Last Friday, amidst widespread anticipation that the South Korean government would abandon GSOMIA, the South Korea–Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), Seoul took the unexpected decision to conditionally delay the renewal of this crucial alliance at the heart of the Asia-Pacific security framework[1]. Signing GSOMIA in 2016, the South Korean and Japanese governments agreed to share classified military information regarding mutual adversary North Korea – from its military actions to the progress of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons programme[2]. Being the first military agreement that Korea and Japan signed after the independence of Korea in 1945, GSOMIA gained its value as a symbol of military cooperation and alliance between the two countries. Notably, the United States, which attempts to strengthen the tripartite (US-Korea-Japan) alliance to counterbalance the increasing influence of China in the region, placed massive effort on mediating the negotiation and fostering this military cooperation agreement.

The challenge to this agreement arose, interestingly, from the historical controversy between two states. In 2018, the Korean Supreme Court made a judgment that Japanese firms involved in the enlistment of forced Korean labourers to individually provide compensation to the victims of forced labour when Korea was under Japanese occupation during WWII. Following this judgment, the Korean government froze the assets of listed Japanese firms within Korean territory[3]. In response, the Japanese government imposed trade controls towards Korea, especially in regards to the raw materials related to the production of semiconductors (one of the main exports of Korea)[4]. In August, Seoul took the landmark decision to allow GSOMIA to expire once the current agreement ran its course in November, refusing to renew the treaty.

Some people still question whether the Korean government should have left GSOMIA to expire permanently to both express the firm historical resentment towards Tokyo and to have more leverage on the negotiation table vis-à-vis Japan[5]. However, this article argues that, contrary to popular belief, Seoul took an excellent decision in delaying the expiration of GSOMIA. Seoul should find a way to retaliate against the trade controls imposed by the Japanese government; however, GSOMIA should continue between the two countries.

The primary reason for supporting the renewal of GSOMIA is because of its importance in negotiations with North Korea. Although the trade war with Japan may be an essential agenda for the Moon-administration to ensure Korean firms do not end up at a competitive disadvantage in the international market, in the long run, the denuclearization of North Korea is a more pressing issue for the Korean government. Indeed, Seoul has more than enough capabilities to observe the movements of North Korea. However, as can be implied from the case in late August when the Japanese government detected and announced the North Korean ICMB experiment ahead of the Korean government[6], there are more advantages to using the intelligence of both countries to observe Pyongyang’s movements. Understanding that the speed and accuracy of intelligence is vital to at preempting threats against both states, improving the intelligence on North Korea through GSOMIA is one of the best ways for Seoul to improve the security of its citizens from North Korean nuclear or missile threats. Moreover, with a better understanding of Pyongyang’s stance on nuclear weapons, the Korean government can find solutions for the denuclearization process in North Korea better than without such intelligence.

Moreover, the renewal of GSOMIA can convey the strength of  the “alliance” to both North Korea and China, which has strategic importance — leaving the GSOMIA to expire leaves the impression to the neighboring countries that the alliances between Korean and Japan, and further Korea and the United States are undergoing ruptures. This, in turn, can be an advantage for China. China, seeking to decrease the influence of the United States and become the regional hegemonic power, has continuously attempted to break down the military ties among the US, Korea, and Japan[7]. Seoul’s latest move has brought out the cracks in the alliance on its own accord, playing straight into the hands of Beijing. Unfortunately, for the South Korean government, increasing Chinese influence is not the best news to hear. As experienced through the THAAD crisis in 2015, it is difficult for the Korean government and the Chinese government to build mutual trust as South Korea has with the US[8]. Accordingly, if the US has less military and political influence over the region, the weaker ties between Korea and China will leave the region more prone to the military conflicts and thus increase overall tensions in North-East Asia.

Fundamentally, however, GSOMIA should have never been brought to the negotiation table in the first place. It is difficult to deny that the non-renewal of GSOMIA gave reliable leverage power for the Korean government to influence Japanese government policy; however, using the military decisions to respond to deep-seated historical and economic issues is not the best way to increase the leverage in these bilateral negotiations. As Baek explains in his article, the government has inadvertently created a situation that looks like the Korean government using the security of its citizens to retaliate against the trade controls[9]. Instead, the Korean government should have sought more retaliatory economic policies such as imposing stronger trade controls on critical Japanese economic sectors like car export industries. By employing these economic measures, the Korean government would have gained more support from the other countries for its decisions while preserving the security of its citizens. Unfortunately, since the Korean government tried to avoid the situation in which they also get accused of participating in the protectionist policies, they decided to use the military decision as their Trump card at the negotiation table.

Still, the attitude of the Japanese government is also to blame; the Japanese government did not express any passion for starting the talks between the two countries nor negotiation to increase its leverage in the deal. This issue may not have expanded to military concerns at all if the Japanese government actively participated in the economic negotiations in the earlier terms. Instead, through continuously violating diplomatic etiquette, blaming the Korean government for the current situation, and avoiding any conversations with Korea[10], the Japanese government left no choice to Seoul but to bring Japan to the negotiation table through tackling the military agreement – which the Abe administration has placed a strong emphasis on to confront the growing Chinese threat. Increasing uncertainty due to the lack of communication between the two countries also led the Korean government and citizens to have healthy distrust towards the Japanese government – which became one of the justifications for the Korean government to avoid the renewal of GSOMIA. As such, although GSOMIA should be renewed, without the changes in attitude of the Japanese government towards the negotiations, it will be challenging for GSOMIA renewal to actualize in the real world.

Overall, the Korean government needs to renew the GSOMIA to improve its security of the citizens, have a better understanding of North Korean nuclear weapons, and maintain the balance of power in North-East Asia. Moreover, it was a poorly thought-out strategy for the Korean government to bring link the military issue to the economic and historical controversy between the two countries. However, since the GSOMIA has already become the core of the controversy, it will be necessary for both Tokyo and Seoul better actively engage in the conversations to increase the understanding of each other, renew GSOMIA, and ultimately to rebuild the mutual trust between the two long-term allies.

[1] Reiji Yoshida and Satoshi Sugiyama, “GSOMIA Survives as South Korea Reverses Decision to Exit Intel Pact with Japan,” The Japan Times, November 22, 2019, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/11/22/national/politics-diplomacy/japan-south-korea-gsomia-talks/#.XeBVoy10eCQ.

[2] Grace Shao, “South Korea Is Scrapping a Security Deal with Japan – Here’s Why It Matters,” CNBC (CNBC, August 23, 2019), https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/23/what-is-the-korea-japan-intelligence-sharing-agreement.html.

[3] Youkyung Lee and Sohee Kim, “Why Japan and South Korea Have Their Own Trade War,” The Washington Post, November 26, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/why-japan-and-south-korea-have-their-own-trade-war/2019/11/25/106fe348-0f54-11ea-924c-b34d09bbc948_story.html?

[4] Edward White, “Japan Hits South Korea with Semiconductor Sanctions,” Financial Times (Financial Times, July 2019), https://www.ft.com/content/1480fc96-9bab-11e9-9c06-a4640c9feebb.

[5] Jeong-yeon 박정연 Park and Jae-ho Lee 이재호, “‘Iljisomia Pagihaeya’ Jujang Botmul ‘日지소미아 파기해야’ 주장 봇물 [Increasing Number of Arguments for ‘Breaking GSOMIA with Japan’],” Pressian, 2019, http://www.pressian.com/news/article?no=251183.

[6] Seung-ho 이승호 Lee, “‘Il, BuK Misail Balsa Han Boda 26 Bun Meonjeo Balpyo’…Hanguk ‘Ilbon-i Jeongbogong-Yu Yocheong’ ‘日, 北 미사일 발사 韓보다 26분 먼저 발표’…한국 ‘일본이 정보공유 요청’ [“Japan Announces North Korea Missle Launch 26 Minutes Earlier than Korean Government”…Korea ‘Japan Asked to Share the Information’],” JoongAng Ilbo, 2019, https://news.joins.com/article/23561165.

[7] Ankit Panda, “Can China Take Advantage of Rift between South Korea and Japan?,” South China Morning Post, September 8, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3026208/can-china-take-advantage-rift-between-south-korea-and-japan.

[8] Jack Kim and Ben Blanchard, “China Says South Korea’s THAAD Anti-Missile Decision Harms Foundation of Trust,” ed. Paul Tait and Robert Birsel, Reuters (Reuters, July 25, 2016), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-thaad-china-defence/china-says-south-koreas-thaad-anti-missile-decision-harms-foundation-of-trust-idUSKCN1050Y7.

[9] Seong-won 백성원 Baek, “[Jeonmunga 20 Myeong Seolmun] ‘Jisomia Pagi Neun Jahaejeok Jochi…Mihan Dongmaeng-e Tagyeok’ [전문가 20명 설문] ‘지소미아 파기는 자해적 조치…미한 동맹에 타격’ [[20 Expert Surveys] ‘Breaking GSOMIA Is a Self-Harm… Challenge to the US Alliance’],” Voice of America, 2019, https://www.voakorea.com/a/5168050.html.

[10] Kyung-sung 권경성 Kwon, “Migug-i Juseonhan Daehwa Jalido Geojeol… Hyeobsang Uiji Eobsneun Ilbon 미국이 주선한 대화 자리도 거절… 협상 의지 없는 일본 [Rejection of US-Sponsored Conversation… Japan Does Not Have Will for Negotiation],” Hankook Ilbo, 2019, https://www.hankookilbo.com/News/Read/201907142098789020.

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