WASHINGTON – Former senior Pentagon official David Shear has expressed strong concern over South Korea’s recent decision to withdraw from a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, calling the move “an indicator of turbulence.”
The 65-year-old former assistant defense secretary for Asian and Pacific affairs recalled that the General Security of Military Information Agreement, concluded in 2016, was seen at the time as marking a “new stage” in Japan-South Korea ties, which have often been marred by wartime historical and territorial disputes.
“We hoped that, as Japan and the ROK improved their defense relationship, that that would put a floor on the broader Japan-ROK bilateral relationship, in other words, it would limit the extent to which that bilateral relationship could deteriorate. We appeared to have been mistaken in that view,” Shear said in a recent interview.
ROK is the acronym of South Korea’s formal name, the Republic of Korea.
Seoul’s decision to terminate the GSOMIA pact was the latest blow to the relationship between Japan and South Korea as they continue to spar over wartime compensation issues and trade control measures.
GSOMIA has allowed Japan and South Korea — which have no military alliance but are both allies of the United States — to directly share sensitive intelligence information, such as on North Korean military activities related to its nuclear and missile programs.
Without the agreement, they would have needed to share such information through the United States.
The planned termination of GSOMIA is “an indicator not only of turbulence” in the Japan-South Korea relationship but also in the U.S.-South Korea relationship, Shear said.
It took years for Japan and South Korea to conclude GSOMIA. In 2012, the two countries were ready to sign the agreement but Seoul postponed the process at the last minute due to growing domestic opposition related to Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
“We were in strong favor of the GSOMIA very early on,” said Shear, acknowledging that his office helped in the negotiations. He served as assistant defense secretary from 2014 to 2016, and left the Pentagon in 2017.
“It was doubly gratifying when the two countries at last concluded the GSOMIA and therefore it’s doubly disappointing that the GSOMIA is not now being implemented by the two countries and that the ROK withdrew,” he said.
While calling on Japan and South Korea to move past historical issues and stop the escalation of tensions, Shear said he has also been disappointed by the approach of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump on the issue.
“It doesn’t appear that the United States has made particularly strong efforts at least at the beginning to help Japan and the ROK manage this problem,” he said.
But Shear said that if he were serving in the Pentagon today, he “would never give up hope” that South Korea would revisit its decision on GSOMIA.
GSOMIA was facing a deadline in August for either side to give written notification of an intention to pull out. Without such notification, it would have been automatically extended for another year. As South Korea has decided to scrap the agreement, it is set to expire on Nov. 22.
Shear warned that the only people to benefit from a deteriorating Japan-South Korea relationship would be Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Improving U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation is extremely important in that it “strengthens deterrence” and “bolsters the three countries’ unity vis-a-vis North Korea,” he said.
On the U.S.-Japan security treaty, Shear dismissed Trump’s argument that it is unfair because it only requires the United States to come to the defense of Japan in the event of an attack.
“If you read the security treaty literally, it’s unfair … But if you look at the way in which both the United States and Japan have implemented the security treaty, I think there is significant balance,” he said.
As for what creates the balance, Shear cited the fairly free U.S. military usage of facilities and areas in Japan and what he called a “good deal” Japan has provided for the payment of costs related to stationing U.S. forces in the country.
But he also said it is “inevitable that the alliance will evolve into something more like a normal military alliance” with mutual defense obligations, and that may lead to a reduction of U.S. forces in Japan as well as less of a base-hosting burden for Okinawa.
Japan has served as a hub for forward-deployed U.S. forces, with around 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country. Okinawa hosts the bulk of the U.S. military facilities.