South Korean Minister of Defense Lee Jong-sup (right) stands for a photo with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (center) and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi (left) ahead of trilateral talks during the Shangri Las Dialogue in Singapore on June 11, 2022. (Yonhap News)
South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Park Jin said he hopes to normalize Korea’s military information-sharing pact with Japan “as soon as possible.” This suggests that Korea is gearing up to resume military cooperation with Japan, which has been suspended for some time.
“With regard to GSOMIA, we want GSOMIA to be normalized as soon as possible together with the improvement of Korea-Japan relationship. In order to deal with the threat from North Korea, we need to have a policy coordination and a sharing of information between Korea and Japan and with the United States,” Park said during a press conference following a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington on Monday. Park was responding to a question about whether the US was playing a role in restoring information sharing between South Korea and Japan.
Park went on to reiterate that he “hope[s] that this security cooperation and sharing of information can be normalized as soon as possible.”
Park’s remarks about the normalization of GSOMIA — which stands for the General Security of Military Information Agreement — are notable for two reasons. First of those is his use of the term “normalization.”
GSOMIA stipulates the regulations and procedures by which Korea and Japan must abide when exchanging sensitive military information, but it does not require that such information be exchanged. In other words, the highway (that is, GSOMIA) may have been built, but Seoul and Tokyo are free to block vehicles from driving on that highway (that is, information from being shared).
At the end of August 2019, when tensions between Korea and Japan reached a fever pitch, the Blue House announced that it would be terminating GSOMIA in three months and disclosed that the two countries had exchanged information 29 times since the agreement was concluded in November 2016. Since little information was actually being exchanged via GSOMIA, Seoul said, terminating the agreement would not create a vulnerability in national security.
Park’s promise to “normalize” GSOMIA basically shows that the new administration regards the current situation as “abnormal.”
Even though North Korea has test-fired multiple ballistic missiles this year, the South Korean and Japanese militaries have released conflicting information about the exact number of North Korean missiles on several occasions, showing that the two sides aren’t sharing much information.
For example, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff announced on June 5 that North Korea had fired eight short-range ballistic missiles from four areas, including the Sunan area of Pyongyang, over a period of about 35 minutes beginning at 9:08 am. But Japan’s Defense Ministry said on the same day that North Korea had “launched at least six missiles.”
Then in a press conference on Friday morning, five days later, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi was forced to acknowledge that Japan’s information had been mistaken.
“North Korea fired two more missiles, in addition to the six [previously mentioned]. We believe that those two flew for a short time at an extremely low altitude,” Kishi said.
After this problem was highlighted several times, the top defense officials in South Korea, the US and Japan agreed during a meeting at the Shangri-La Dialogue Asia security summit in Singapore on Saturday to hold joint drills related to missile alertness and ballistic missile detection and tracking.
The second notable aspect of Park’s remarks is his proviso about the “improvement of [the] Korea-Japan relationship.” Considering that military cooperation with Japan is bound to be a touchy, and even incendiary, issue in Korea, Park was expressing his view that bilateral relations need to be improved before the two countries can forge ahead with military cooperation. That’s why there were defense minister-level meetings between Korea, the US and Japan in addition to those between Korea and China in Shangri-La, but not a meeting between Korea and Japan.
If Korea and Japan are to improve their relations, they’ll have to reach a meaningful compromise on two issues dating back to Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea — the issue of the comfort women, who were forced to work in military brothels for the Japanese imperial army, and a ruling by the South Korean Supreme Court in October 2018 that awarded damages to Korean labor conscripts.
If South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol makes concessions on the historical disputes that are so sensitive to Koreans and then goes even further by initiating military cooperation with Japan, he could face considerable opposition from the public. That’s why senior officials in the Yoon administration have repeatedly stressed that “Japan needs to make an effort, too.”
By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter
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