National / Politics | ANALYSIS

U.S. struggles to find footing as trade and history row threatens Japan-South Korea intel-sharing pact

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

Japan’s defense intelligence-sharing agreement with South Korea could be in jeopardy as Seoul weighs its options amid a trade and history clash with Tokyo that threatens joint efforts to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

South Korea’s presidential Blue House confirmed Friday that it would review whether to continue the General Security of Military Information Agreement, a key cog in tripartite security cooperation with the United States.

Any move in that direction is likely to unnerve Washington and put to the test its ability to mediate the increasingly fraught terrain while also working to rein in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, experts say.

The GSOMIA signed in 2016 under the administration of South Korean President Park Geun-hye and renewed automatically each year in August, is set to expire in late November. To scrap it, a party must notify the other 90 days ahead of its expiration, meaning a decision would have to come before Aug. 23.

Japan has said it hopes to renew the pact.

But the Blue House said reconsideration of the pact could be part of “comprehensive countermeasures” against Tokyo after diplomatic ties with Seoul hit a new low on Friday, when Japan decided to strip South Korea of a preferential trade status.

While it is unclear how closely the two neighbors have cooperated in sharing military-related intelligence, any decision not to renew the GSOMIA would come amid an uptick in North Korean missile tests, and would signal an egregious split between the two U.S. allies that could impact East Asian security.

Nuclear-armed Pyongyang conducted three short-range ballistic tests over a span of eight days from late last month through to Friday, while lashing out at planned joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises scheduled to begin later this month.

The U.S.-North Korean nuclear talks had been on ice since late February after U.S. President Donald Trump’s second summit with the North’s Kim Jong Un collapsed in Hanoi. Those talks, however, got a fresh injection of momentum in late June, with Trump’s visit to the Demilitarized Zone at the North-South border for another meeting with Kim.

Experts, however, say that Trump’s personal touch is not enough to keep the denuclearization push going.

“Pyongyang’s recent tests and threats regarding U.S.-South Korea defensive exercises show that bringing together Trump and Kim at the DMZ is not sufficient for dealing with North Korea — it will take a regional approach to show Pyongyang the carrots and sticks necessary for denuclearization,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.

“That means not only keeping GSOMIA, but increasing policy coordination among Japan, South Korea and the United States,” he said. “It is a matter of strategic urgency that trilateral security cooperation not be hampered by Seoul’s handling of history issues or Tokyo’s apparent economic retaliation against South Korean court rulings on wartime labor.”

A senior U.S. official on Friday urged Tokyo and Seoul not to further escalate tensions, saying Seoul’s threat to scrap the intelligence-sharing pact would have a profound effect on U.S. security interests.

“As this relationship comes apart … U.S. interests are at stake as well,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said according to a transcript.

The official also said Washington “has no interest in arbitrating or mediating” the dispute.

Another U.S. official voiced hope that the two countries had “reached the bottom on this,” pointing to trilateral talks with the U.S. focusing on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.

“It was clear from the course of those discussions that the cooperation between the three parties is going to be uninterrupted by tensions in other parts of the relationship,” the official said. “There’s too much at stake, and all three parties know this.”

If the relationship continues to go south, “it will certainly make it difficult for us to encourage the North Koreans to do” what is needed for denuclearization, the official added.

For now, there have been no signs that Japan or South Korea will take steps to improve ties.

Japan’s decision on Friday to remove South Korea from the preferential trade list has sparked the most serious threat to trilateral security ties in recent memory. Seoul claims the decision was retaliation for political and historical grievances, including a series of South Korean judicial decisions on wartime forced labor requiring Japanese companies to pay compensation. Japan claims that removing South Korea from the list of countries with preferential export status is strictly because of a loss of trust and national security concerns.

“The (South Korean) government will take comprehensive response measures, including (reviewing) whether it’s right to maintain the sharing of sensitive military information with a country that takes issue with the lack of trust and a security-related problem,” Kim Hyun-chong, the country’s deputy national security adviser, was quoted as saying.

This sentiment was echoed Saturday by South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, who was quoted as saying that the trade decision had “crossed a line it should not have.”

“(The decision), is the second retaliation after the country imposed export restrictions on key chip materials,” the Yonhap news agency quoted Lee as telling a Cabinet meeting.

He also said such moves could “cause a crack in the three-way security alliance with the United States.”

“We cannot but sternly deal with the matter,” he added.

And while all three countries would turn out to be losers in the event of the pact’s abrogation, there would likely be at least one winner: China.

“One result would be a clear indication to Beijing and the rest of the world that Washington no longer has the capability it once had to incent its allies to cooperate,” said Richard J. Samuels, a Japan specialist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “That could be merely symbolic, but only until a crisis requires U.S. leadership and no one follows.”