Seoul’s sudden announcement that it has decided to scrap a key intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo has rocked the defense communities of Japan and the United States.
Defense insiders in Tokyo interviewed Friday all said it is the South Korean military that will suffer the most from the move because Seoul has enjoyed the greatest benefits under the pact, which was mainly designed to promote the exchange of sensitive military secrets over North Korea’s ballistic missile threats.
At the same time, the trilateral alliance of Japan, the U.S. and South Korea will suffer considerably as well, as the pact has been a symbol of smooth trilateral military cooperation between the three countries and acted as a deterrent against North Korea, they said.
Hideshi Takesada, professor at the graduate school of Takushoku University and a noted Korean expert who worked at Japan’s National Institute for Defense Studies for 36 years, said the ratio of benefits Seoul enjoyed through the pact to those Tokyo enjoyed has been around 9-to-1.
“The General Security of Military Information Agreement was concluded in November 2016 to counter the threat of North Korean missiles, and most of the benefits from the pact go to South Korea,” Takesada said.
Japan’s radar systems, including those equipped on Aegis destroyers and land-based systems within its territory, can track most of the trajectory of a ballistic missile flying from North Korea with assistance from the U.S. forces, Takesada said.
Those radar systems can also determine where a ballistic missile falls in the sea around Japan, usually hundreds of kilometers away from the Korean Peninsula.
Such a task is impossible for the South Korean military’s radar system because of the curvature of the Earth, he said.
Retired Vice Adm. Toshiyuki Ito, now a professor of innovation management at KIT Toranomon Graduate School, largely agrees with Takesada’s characterization of the benefits of the pact. According to Ito, it is Seoul that originally asked Tokyo to conclude GSOMIA, but Japan had initially rejected the proposal because of concerns over Seoul’s management of sensitive information.
In contrast to Japan’s high-tech information-gathering systems, Seoul often obtains intelligence through spies and defectors from North Korea, but most of this information is held by nonmilitary intelligence agencies and so is not covered by GSOMIA, Takesada explained.
Retired Vice Adm. Yoji Koda, former commander of the main fleet of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, nonetheless emphasized the importance of GSOMIA between the two countries.
“You shouldn’t just look at Japan and South Korea. It is the trilateral cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the United States that matters,” he said.
“Without GSOMIA, the capability and deterrence power of the U.S. military will be considerably reduced” as far as the Korean Peninsula is concerned, he said.
The U.S. is a military ally for South Korea and Japan separately, and Japan and the U.S. have a similar intelligence-sharing pact.
The three countries often need to join forces to deal with North Korean military threats. Before GSOMIA was concluded, Washington had to remove intelligence provided by Japan when it shared sensitive military information with Seoul.
Thanks to the pact’s conclusion, the three countries have been able to smoothly share key intelligence, Takesada and Ito said.
“Neither Japan nor South Korea alone can ensure security of their own countries. What is ultimately important is how they use the U.S. military as an effective deterrence power,” Koda said.
As Japan has not concluded any military alliance pact with South Korea, GSOMIA has been a symbol of military cooperation between the two countries, which has also promoted various exchanges between the two militaries, Koda added.
Without complementary information from South Korea, it may be difficult to get a whole picture of the trajectory of a ballistic missile. Just discussing the amount of information is not very meaningful, Koda pointed out.
“Further, the amount and quality of some intelligence about political situations in North Korea may be much better than that owned by Japan,” Koda said.
Since last year, Japan-South Korea relations have been in a state of free fall over history and trade issues. Seoul raised the prospect of discontinuing GSOMIA after Japan last month imposed export control measures, citing national security concerns. Koda argued that some politicians of the two countries have used overly emotional rhetoric regarding the recent diplomatic issues.
The leaders of the two countries should consider what strategic goals they will pursue in the bilateral relationship, Koda said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. expressed “strong concern” and “disappointment” Thursday with Seoul’s decision to withdraw from the pact, with both the State Department and Pentagon issuing rare public rebukes of South Korea.
“We’re disappointed to see the decision that the South Koreans made about that information-sharing agreement,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
“We were urging each of the two countries to continue to engage, to continue to have dialogue,” he said, adding that he had spoken with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha in the morning.
The office of South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that Seoul had concluded that “Japan has brought about fundamental changes to the environment for security cooperation between the two countries, by removing (South Korea) from the (white list of preferred export partners).”
The Pentagon, meanwhile, echoed Pompeo, saying that it has ” strong concern and disappointment” with Moon’s decision.
“We strongly believe that the integrity of our mutual defense and security ties must persist despite frictions in other areas of the ROK-Japan relationship,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn said in a statement, using the acronym for South Korea’s formal name, the Republic of Korea. “We’ll continue to pursue bilateral and trilateral defense and security cooperation where possible with Japan and the ROK,” he added.
The statements came after a South Korean presidential official reportedly said that the U.S. had expressed its understanding of Seoul’s decision — remarks U.S. officials made clear had angered Washington.
“The United States has repeatedly made clear to the Moon administration that this decision would have a negative effect on U.S. security interests and those of our allies,” the South’s Yonhap news agency quoted an unidentified U.S. State Department spokesperson as saying.
The decision “reflects a serious misapprehension on the part of the Moon administration regarding the serious security challenges we face in Northeast Asia,” the spokesperson added.
Separately, Yonhap quoted another U.S. government source as expressing anger over the remarks.
“We are especially unhappy that the South Korean government is saying it had U.S. understanding. Not true,” the source reportedly said on condition of anonymity.
The U.S. has filed a complaint with South Korean officials in Seoul and Washington over the assertion, “in addition to expressing our unhappiness with the actual decision,” the source added.
The Japan Times could not independently verify either sources’ remarks.
Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on North Korean issues, said that while there may ultimately be room for de-escalating the dispute, it would require some “creative ideas, more active U.S. leadership and savvy use of the diplomatic calendar” to pull off.
“But for now, we’ll likely need to wait for some time,” he said. “South Korea just threw a canister of fuel onto the fire. We’re going to need it to burn off a bit.”
Former and current U.S. officials have said that, for many years, Washington had taken comfort in the fact that trilateral security cooperation remained largely pragmatic and shielded from broader tensions.
However, with Thursday’s decision, that pattern “took a serious hit,” Oba said.
“No doubt Beijing and Pyongyang are thrilled,” Oba said. “No one would blame them for thinking, if South Korea and Japan can’t even shield an intelligence-sharing agreement from political tensions, how could they credibly form a consistent, coordinated front against Chinese or North Korean aggression when much more serious action is required?”
Still, Pompeo publicly voiced hope that South Korea and Japan will begin to mend their ties in consideration of the utility of their security work.
But experts said that the dissolution of the agreement had severely damaged the prospect of continued close security ties, despite renewed North Korean missile tests amid Trump’s landmark nuclear talks with leader Kim Jong Un and Beijing’s work to split U.S. alliances in the region.
“By prioritizing reality show diplomacy with a brutal dictator while ignoring allies’ interests, the ROK and Japan have had space for age-old tensions to boil over once again — despite the fact that the shared threat is far more serious than ever,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and Yale Law School China Center, tweeted.
“The loss of GSOMIA weakens defense, deterrence; it is a win for Kim Jong Un, the (Chinese Communist Party), and anyone else (who) wants weaker U.S. alliances. It is a consequence of hostility and neglect at the highest levels,” she added.
In recent weeks, China and Russia carried the first long-range joint air patrol in the Asia-Pacific region — a mission that triggered hundreds of warning shots from the South Korean military, and a strong protest from Japan. That patrol came as North Korea returned to provocative tests of a series of weapons, including short-range missiles that U.S. officials acknowledged could potentially strike Japan.
“The Moon government may see this decision as domestically popular and as a symbolic, low-cost way of signaling resolve to Tokyo,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul. “However, this move will raise international concerns that Seoul misreads the regional security situation and is presently unwilling to shoulder its responsibility for improving Korea-Japan relations.”
Easley said that, in such a case, “South Korea can expect little support from other countries regarding its complaints against Japan.”
“Tokyo may become more likely to escalate economic pressure,” he said. “South Korea may be seen by Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow to be weakening its alliance cooperation with the United States, leaving Seoul more exposed to regional geopolitics.”
China, and to a lesser extent Russia, have long worked to “decouple” the U.S. alliances on their doorsteps with South Korea and Japan, according to regional security experts.
But some said the U.S. may also have had a hand in the blame for the souring of relations between Seoul and Tokyo.
“Tokyo caused this death spiral in Korea-Japan relations by embracing economic coercion as a tactic and putting Seoul in a position where it had to react,” said Oba. “South Korea made it worse by punishing the security relationship over it. But the United States has aided and abetted Korea and Japan in a cycle of self-harm by not acting more vigorously to defend its stake in a constructive Korea-Japan relationship and leaving Japan, in particular, with the impression that it will not impose any real costs for escalating Korea-Japan tensions.”
But Oba also warned of the potential for the White House to be seen as favoring Tokyo over Seoul in the row — a scenario that could have even more dramatic results.
While U.S. President Donald Trump has had famously tempestuous relationships with other world leaders, including Moon, he has formed a strong bond with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with the Japanese leader widely viewed as having the closest ties with the mercurial American president.
“Now that South Korea has harmed a top U.S. security priority in the region, that will only exacerbate this particular administration’s tendency to favor the U.S.-Japan alliance or, at least, tacitly enable Japan by doing nothing as it escalates tensions. At best, this means it will be hard to de-escalate in a mutually agreeable way. At worst, Tokyo will feel further emboldened to escalate.”
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