S. Korea succumbs to US pressure to extend GSOMIA

Posted on : 2019-11-25 17:26 KST Modified on : 2019-11-25 17:26 KST
Critics say Moon admin. failed to live up to its principles
S. Korea-US-Japan movements surrounding GSOMIA
S. Korea-US-Japan movements surrounding GSOMIA

After the South Korean government conditionally suspended the termination of its intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), critics say that the government has betrayed its principles by not scrapping the agreement as originally planned.

The Blue House insists that it made its decision after Japan, under pressure because of South Korea’s threat to terminate GSOMIA, offered to reconsider its export controls and its removal of South Korea from its white list of trusted trading partners. But the equivalence of the two countries’ concessions is debatable. Japan only agreed to restart deliberations about dealing with the import controls but got immediate results in return: South Korea not only relented on its planned termination of GSOMIA but also withdrew a complaint it had lodged with the World Trade Organization (WTO). Seoul counters that this tradeoff is balanced because it can still terminate GSOMIA at any time if Japan drags its feet in the deliberations.

Seoul’s decision appears to have been influenced by unexpectedly sharp pressure from the US amid worsening inter-Korean relations and stalled North Korea-US negotiations. By giving some ground on GSOMIA, the South Korean government may also have been attempting to ease pressure on issues related to its alliance with the US, including Washington’s demand for Seoul to greatly increase its financial contribution to the cost of stationing American troops in Korea. Nevertheless, the government’s failure to achieve the goals that President Moon Jae-in outlined in a town hall meeting has damaged its credibility and called into question its policy consistency.

“Formally speaking, this was an equal truce, but in the end, it unfortunately weakened the credibility and stability of our foreign policy and security policy. This decision appeared to be based on concerns that pushing ahead with terminating GSOMIA would have created uncertainty in the South Korean economy and provoked a backlash from the US,” said Cho Sung-ryul, a research consultant for the Institute for National Security Strategy.

Seoul’s decision also sheds light on its limited foreign policy options at a time when the US is seeking to reset the chessboard in Northeast Asia to contain a resurgent China. While South Korea had intended the GSOMIA termination to be a response to Japan’s retaliatory export controls and white list removal, the US interpreted it as a threat to the framework of security cooperation with South Korea and Japan, a component of its China containment strategy. That viewpoint was encapsulated in a statement that the US State Department released shortly after Seoul’s decision to terminate GSOMIA on Aug. 22 that described the decision as “reflect[ing] a serious misapprehension on the part of the Moon Administration regarding the serious security challenges we face in Northeast Asia.” In short, South Korea’s choice conflicted with American interests.

One lingering question is whether Seoul adequately considered the security environment in its decision to terminate GSOMIA. The government was unable to persuade the US of the validity of playing the GSOMIA card in its attempt to counter Japan’s retaliatory measures, which ended up becoming a serious liability. The government’s failure to keep GSOMIA separate from the South Korea-US alliance opened it up to serious pressure from the US.

“GSOMIA is closely linked to US strategy in East Asia. Considering that Japan cited security issues in adopting its retaliatory export measures and that the US seemed reluctant to mediate, it’s understandable why the South Korean government would threaten to scrap GSOMIA. But in that process, the government was apparently negligent in making diplomatic preparations and consulting with the US,” said Kim Suk-hyeon, director of foreign strategy research at the Institute for National Security Strategy.

Realistically, S. Korea fails to operate independently of US interests

The US displayed an unexpected degree of tenacity on this issue. Even though the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs called in US Ambassador Harry Harris and asked the US to refrain from publicly expressing its concerns, Washington didn’t waver in its message. It used various channels, including the State Department and Defense Department, to emphasize the importance of security cooperation with South Korea and Japan as being a key component of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. The US also declared that GSOMIA’s termination would stand to benefit North Korea, China, and Russia, thereby clarifying that GSOMIA is meant to serve American attempts to contain China. That left no doubt that South Korea’s security interests cannot be separated from American security interests.

The US’ position on this matter makes South Korea’s foreign policy burden even heavier. For one, it serves as a fresh reminder that South Korea is entangled in a framework of security cooperation with the US and Japan that’s aimed at containing China. China is likely to be annoyed at growing cooperation among the three countries in Northeast Asia, and North Korea could decide that independent inter-Korean relations just aren’t feasible.

“The government’s decision sends the message that South Korea isn’t able to act independently of American influence. While South Korea has emphasized its autonomous role and the principle of South and North Korea finding their own solutions to inter-Korean issues, this essentially shows that such a principle is impractical in the real world,” said Kim Suk-hyeon.

GSOMIA has shown Washington’s clear preference for Tokyo over Seoul

This episode has also created fine cracks in the South Korea-US alliance. When the South Korea-Japan conflict blew up after the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to compensate the victims of forced labor and when Japan tightened restrictions on exports to South Korea for security reasons, the US refused to get involved. Pressure from the US intensified as the GSOMIA termination date approached, but it fell heavier on South Korea than on Japan. The unbalanced intervention from the US left the impression of an unfair alliance.

“The US didn’t treat South Korea and Japan with an equal degree of respect. The GSOMIA issue has shown that the US heavily favors Japan,” Cho Sung-ryul said.

South Korea’s next task is to make progress on rolling back the export controls and finding a solution to the forced labor issue that will be acceptable to the victims prior to the South Korea-Japan summit that’s scheduled to be held in China at the end of next month.

“South Korea needs to quickly persuade Japan to reverse its export controls through deliberations between bureau chiefs and to create an opportunity for finding a solution to the forced labor issue that takes the victims’ position into account,” Kim Suk-hyeon said.

By Yoo Kang-moon, senior staff writer, and Park Min-hee, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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