SEOUL/TOKYO – Observers say there are signs of a thaw in Japan and South Korea’s yearlong feud, but it’s unclear whether ties between the two U.S. allies will warm fast enough to save a key intelligence-sharing pact.
The neighbors have just over two weeks to stop the defense pact from becoming a lasting casualty of their diplomatic crisis, even as they face common threats from China and North Korea. South Korea moved in August to withdraw from the agreement, set to expire on Nov. 23 unless the notice of termination is withdrawn.
President Donald Trump’s point man for the region, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell, said Wednesday during a visit to Seoul that an unexpected meeting this week between the leaders of South Korea and Japan was an “encouraging sign” that the two countries are on track to improve a relationship strained by deep rows over trade and history.
On Monday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in initiated an unscheduled 11-minute meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of a regional forum in Thailand — the latest step by Seoul to de-escalate the feud as the deadline on the military agreement draws near.
“President Moon and Prime Minister Abe had the opportunity to talk and that’s an encouraging sign as we watched the relationship improve,” Stilwell told reporters after a meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young. He did not respond to a question on whether they discussed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) military intelligence-sharing agreement between Seoul and Tokyo.
Seoul’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Kang had explained during her talks with Stilwell and Keith Krach, U.S. undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy and the environment, about South Korean efforts to find “rational solutions” through dialogue over the issues with Japan. South Korean and U.S. officials didn’t confirm whether there had been any specific discussions over the Seoul-Tokyo military agreement.
The meeting Monday between Moon and Abe was their first since a two-way summit held on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September 2018.
The Trump administration has been pressuring its allies to maintain the intelligence-sharing deal, which symbolized the countries’ trilateral security cooperation with Washington in face of the North Korean nuclear threat and China’s growing influence.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s Dong-A Ilbo daily reported Wednesday that Suh Hoon, head of the National Intelligence Service, had met with U.S. and Japanese intelligence authorities in Washington last weekend. The regularly held meeting was attended by officials from the CIA and Japan’s Cabinet Intelligence and Research Office, according to the paper.
At an intelligence committee meeting of the National Assembly on Monday, Suh suggested that the South Korean government could reconsider its decision to withdraw from GSOMIA, saying that the possibility of maintaining the pact could not be ruled out.
Suh is believed to have sensed during the Washington meeting that Japan could change its stance toward South Korea, giving Seoul a justification to reverse its decision to terminate the pact, an intelligence committee source told the newspaper.
On Tuesday, former Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said in an interview that security was an immediate problem and should be treated separately from the overall relationship. Keeping that channel of communication open could even help restore the broader relationship, Iwaya said in Tokyo.
“An agreement showing that Japan, the U.S. and South Korea will cooperate on national security, and have the kind of relationship in which they can even share secret military information, has great symbolic value,” he said.
Moon expressed optimism Tuesday after his meeting with Abe the previous day, writing on Twitter: “With Prime Minister Abe, I held a meaningful meeting that could be the start of dialogue.”
Meanwhile, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told the National Assembly in Seoul that the military agreement should be maintained if it was at all helpful to national security.
The GSOMIA pact was signed by Japan and South Korea in November 2016 and was seen as a breakthrough in getting them to cooperate independently of the U.S.
When South Korea notified Japan in August it would withdraw from the hard-won agreement, the alarm was raised in Washington.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, however, offered a note of caution about Abe’s meeting with Moon, saying Tuesday, “We shouldn’t give too high an evaluation of this 10-minute conversation.”
Relations between the two Asian neighbors have sunk to their worst state in decades since the South Korean Supreme Court ruled last year that a Japanese company must compensate those forced into wartime labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the peninsula. Japan says all such claims were settled under a 1965 treaty.
Baek Seung-joo — a former South Korean vice defense minister who helped broker a separate three-way intelligence pact that also included Japan and the U.S. — said that Seoul’s decision to let GSOMIA expire could hurt its international standing.
“If we lose the trust of the U.S. on the South Korea-U.S. alliance, that would impact the level of trust from other U.S. allies, NATO, and international society in general,” said Baek, who was a involved with a 2014 deal known as the Trilateral Information Sharing Arrangement.