National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Unwilling or unable? U.S. faces uphill battle in quest to save Japan-South Korea intel pact

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

As the days tick down before the expiration of a key military intelligence-sharing pact between Japan and South Korea, Washington is dialing up pressure on Seoul to reverse its decision to terminate the agreement.

The only problem? Washington appears unable — or unwilling — to exploit its leverage with South Korea to prevent Seoul from nixing the pact.

In August, Seoul announced it would withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Tokyo. The move came amid a trade row that broke out in the summer, a disagreement rooted in South Korea’s historical grievances over wartime labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

The U.S. views GSOMIA as crucial for its two allies to share intelligence, including on threats from North Korea and China, allowing the three democracies to communicate quickly and effectively — especially during a crisis.

The pact will expire at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 23 unless Seoul reverses course.

“The Trump administration has clearly decided that South Korea walking away from GSOMIA would be bad for the U.S.,” said Van Jackson, a lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington and former Pentagon official. “But they don’t have much in the way of leverage or political capital to do anything about it. I just don’t see how the U.S. plays a meaningful role in this.”

South Korea, meanwhile, appears aware of the security consequences of losing Japan as an intelligence partner — for one, Tokyo has superior capabilities when it comes to tracking North Korean missiles — but can’t back down easily due to political considerations.

In a push to prevent the defense pact from becoming a lasting casualty of the ongoing Seoul-Tokyo diplomatic row, top Trump administration officials have held a flurry of meetings with their South Korean counterparts, hoping to convince Seoul that leaving would seriously undermine both U.S. and South Korean security.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the latest high-level U.S. official to call on South Korea to stay in a military information-sharing pact with Japan. | AFP-JIJI
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the latest high-level U.S. official to call on South Korea to stay in a military information-sharing pact with Japan. | AFP-JIJI

During a visit to Tokyo on Tuesday, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, became the latest high-level official to call on South Korea to stay in GSOMIA. Milley was visiting Tokyo and Seoul on his first overseas trip as chairman and was scheduled to meet his South Korean counterpart along with Defense Secretary Mark Esper in Seoul this week.

Their trip comes on the heels of one by U.S. President Donald Trump’s point man for the region, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell, and Marc Knapper, a senior U.S. State Department diplomat dealing with Japan and South Korea.

Stillwell had lauded an unexpected meeting earlier this month between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in as an “encouraging sign,” while Knapper was quoted as saying that the U.S. could “play a role as a catalyst to improve relations.”

The U.S. has urged both South Korea and Japan to work “to find creative solutions to their disagreements,” a State Department spokesperson said, adding that “the United States continues to engage on these issues and stands ready to facilitate dialogue between our two allies.”

These pleas, however, have been met by Seoul with little more than superficial steps toward a truce.

Though the Moon administration has given signals that it is open to reversing the GSOMIA decision — this would only be with the caveat that Japan first rollback export controls it imposed over what it claims are legitimate security concerns. Tokyo’s move came after the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel Corp. to compensate workers conscripted during Japan’s colonial rule. Japan says all such claims were settled under a 1965 treaty.

On Sunday, Chung Eui-yong, Moon’s national security chief, said that Seoul could reconsider the GSOMIA decision if South Korea-Japan ties “are normalized,” likely referring to before the trade restrictions were applied.

Still, Chung said that the GSOMIA issue is “completely unrelated” to the U.S.-South Korea alliance, adding that even if it expires, there would only be a “limited impact.”

Chung’s comments were at odds with remarks by Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, who admitted Friday that North Korea and China would benefit from GSOMIA’s expiration and noted that “there has been disappointment in the U.S.”

Officials with the South Korean presidential office have said GSOMIA, inked in 2016, will be replaced with the 2014 Trilateral Information-Sharing Arrangement (TISA), which lets Seoul and Tokyo pass information to each other through the U.S. as an intermediary.

But U.S. officials have called the TISA pact “cumbersome” and “unwieldy,” framing it as far more risky than its successor. The biggest difference may be the speed of information exchanges, since the U.S. would be a middleman in passing it on under TISA.

And unlike GSOMIA, Seoul and Tokyo would negotiate case by case which information to share. Under GSOMIA, the two swap information when one side requests it.

Both of these differences, while downplayed by Seoul, could have dramatic effects in the event of a fast-moving crisis.

David Stilwell, U.S. assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, talks with Cho Sei-young, South Korean vice foreign minister, during their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on Nov. 6. | REUTERS
David Stilwell, U.S. assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, talks with Cho Sei-young, South Korean vice foreign minister, during their meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on Nov. 6. | REUTERS

“It clearly appears that the Moon administration has made the calculation that any potential security risk from GSOMIA withdrawal is acceptable or not serious enough relative to the political benefit gained from holding its ground against Japan,” said Frank Aum, a former senior Pentagon adviser on North Korea now with the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.

Observers have said that the extension pushed by Washington, while risky for the Moon administration ahead of spring parliamentary elections, could be both face-saving for Seoul and set the stage for deeper talks with Japan.

Mitchell Lerner, a history professor at Ohio State University focusing on U.S.-Korea relations, said such a move would be “a classic diplomatic ploy.”

“The details of the agreement are often less important than the political environment in which it is made, so a general extension might buy some time for public pressure to dissipate, thus giving both sides a bit more room to maneuver,” Lerner said.

Doing so would fail to repair the fractured Seoul-Tokyo relationship, and could backfire with an even worse flare-up.

“But, it still might be the best solution at this point,” said Lerner.

On Monday, when asked about an extension, the South’s Defense Ministry reiterated that the Moon administration is not considering the possibility, but appeared to leave the door open to such a scenario.

“So far, (the option) has not been reviewed, as far as I know,” spokesperson Choi Hyun-soo said.

Protesters stage a rally against the U.S. in front of the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on Nov. 6. | AP
Protesters stage a rally against the U.S. in front of the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on Nov. 6. | AP

But even if an extension were granted, it’s unclear how much faith Seoul and Tokyo have in each other.

“I’m not sure if it would help,” Gregg Brazinsky, a professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, said of a possible extension.

Brazinsky said the Abe administration “knows well what it has to do to extend GSOMIA,” citing Moon’s willingness to reverse the decision if Japan improves the bilateral trade environment.

“I don’t see why more time is needed when Tokyo could prevent Seoul from leaving GSOMIA very easily,” he said.

In Seoul, observers say there is also anger that the U.S. is only applying pressure to South Korea on GSOMIA, highlighting a perceived bias toward Tokyo in Washington.

The U.S. has historically encouraged the strengthening of South Korea-Japan security ties, and therefore the strengthening of U.S. security, “in ways that have sometimes marginalized an honest and comprehensive resolution to painful historical issues,” said Aum from the Institute of Peace.

“Unfortunately, this position tends to come off as favoritism toward Japan over Korea when it is really a preference for advancing U.S. security interests,” Aum said.

According to Brazinsky, “If Seoul is forced to back down but no parallel pressures are put on Japan, the Moon administration could see it as a loss of face and look weak for caving into pressure from the United States.”

This view has grown as the Trump administration urges a reversal of the GSOMIA decision while simultaneously pursuing a heavy-handed approach to cost-sharing negotiations with Seoul for hosting U.S. forces.

The White House is reportedly pushing for an unprecedented fivefold increase in South Korea’s contribution — a move that has done little to foster goodwill between the allies.

Amid this environment, “Seoul sees less and less reason to bend over backwards to sustain an alliance that the Trump administration seems to put little priority on,” Brazinsky said.

“The alliance has worked for decades because both countries attached a high priority to it,” he added. But “Trump doesn’t believe in alliances and this is hurting Washington’s relations not only with Seoul but with allies around the world.”