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Hopes for 11th-hour deal dim as deadline for Japan-South Korea intel pact looms

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

It’s do or die for South Korea, as Seoul must decide before Saturday whether to follow through on its stunning decision to scrap a key intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan amid the neighbors’ feud over history and trade.

The United States, a crucial ally of both countries, has frantically engaged in almost daily exhortations to Seoul that it reverse its decision on the 2016 General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a pact that was only completed after years of prodding by Washington.

But, as the clock ticks closer to the deadline for renewing the pact, Tokyo and Seoul appear no closer to bridging significant gaps to prevent an inglorious end to the major symbol of their security cooperation with Washington.

South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said Thursday that Seoul would not reconsider its decision to let the pact expire unless Tokyo compromises over export controls it slapped on Seoul in July. Without a change in Japan’s stance, “GSOMIA ends tomorrow,” she was quoted as telling a parliamentary committee meeting.

At the same time, Kang echoed comments earlier this week by South Korean President Moon Jae-in that Seoul would make efforts to avoid the expiration of the deal “until the last minute.”

Her comments came after the South Korean government held a standing committee meeting of its National Security Council (NSC) earlier Thursday.

At that meeting, the panel agreed to continue “close consultations with major countries concerned” and talked about ways to deal with “various relevant situations,” the South Korean presidential office said in a statement.

This appeared to signal that an eleventh-hour effort by the two countries to prevent GSOMIA from lapsing could be taking place behind the scenes.

But in an apparent backup plan in the event of the pact’s demise, Seoul is reportedly looking at expanding the function and role of the 2014 Trilateral Information-Sharing Arrangement (TISA), which lets South Korea and Japan pass information to each other through the U.S. as an intermediary, as a way to maintain military information sharing with Tokyo.

As part of this plan, it sent Kim Hyung-chong, a deputy chief in the presidential national security office, on an unannounced trip to Washington earlier this week, the Yonhap news agency reported. Kim, a member of the NSC panel, was likely to have briefed the other attendees on the results of his consultations with U.S. officials.

How it began

GSOMIA, aimed mainly at countering North Korea’s increasingly potent nuclear and missile capabilities and facilitating three-way defense cooperation with the United States, had been automatically renewed each year since it was inked three years ago, and was due to be extended — until Seoul’s sudden decision in August to abandon it.

Seoul has repeatedly insisted that it will only reconsider its decision not to renew the deal if Tokyo first reverses moves earlier that removed South Korea from its list of trusted trading partners and tightened controls on exports of key materials needed by South Korean manufacturers of semiconductors and display panels.

Tokyo cited security concerns as the rationale, but Seoul says the moves were retaliation for South Korean court rulings last year that called for Japanese companies to offer reparations to aging South Korean plaintiffs over forced wartime labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

What is it?

GSOMIA, while lauded for bringing rivals South Korea and Japan together in the security sphere, is more than a mere symbolic arrangement, experts say.

The pact makes it far easier for Seoul to access information gathered by Tokyo’s powerful spy satellites, advanced radars and patrol planes. These high-tech systems, many of which South Korea lacks, are crucial for analyzing North Korean military threats, including its missile launches.

But it is also of immense value for Japan. Due to South Korea’s proximity to the North, Seoul can more quickly detect missile launches. GSOMIA also gives Tokyo access to Seoul’s network of spies, defectors and other on-the-ground human sources.

From the U.S. perspective, GSOMIA has been “instrumental” in facilitating the smoother flow of intelligence among the three countries, said Yuki Tatsumi, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.

Observers say it also presents a united front between the U.S. and its two allies in the face of growing Chinese assertiveness in the region.

Officials with the South Korean presidential office have said GSOMIA will be replaced with its predecessor, the TISA pact, and that the biggest difference between the two may be the speed of information exchanges under TISA.

“Without GSOMIA, the U.S. will have to play ‘the middleman’ role again, which not only is cumbersome, but also more time-consuming,” Tatsumi said, adding that in a crisis, “this extra time … to facilitate the intelligence exchange between Japan and the ROK can be quite damaging.”

Looming expiration

Experts are divided over how to break the impasse — or if that is even possible considering the level of distrust between Seoul and Tokyo.

South Korea has continued to link the pact’s fate to Japan’s trade restrictions, but without a settlement on the wartime labor issue, it’s doubtful Tokyo will return Seoul to its list of favored trade partners any time soon.

Tokyo has grown increasingly concerned that any compromise on the wartime labor issue could undermine the 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral ties and open the door to a flood of compensation claims related to Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Some have argued for a temporary extension of GSOMIA that would buy more time for the two sides to work on the more intractable history issues.

Stimson’s Tatsumi said much of the onus for such an approach would be on Seoul.

“It only takes the ROK government to announce its intention not to let GSOMIA expire, or a bilateral statement that the two countries agree to a provisional extension … while the two countries work out their differences in the other issues,” she said. “This does not require a summit-level meeting. It does require a nod from the highest levels of both governments, and I suspect it may be a bit harder to get such a nod from Seoul than from Tokyo.”

Critics have said that Moon, with a faltering support rate, little progress on the North Korean nuclear issue and parliamentary elections set for next year, had gambled that Tokyo would stand down on the trade row after his GSOMIA gambit.

But others see a failure by Tokyo to respond in a way that let Moon save face and return to the deal.

In September, amid a spate of unnerving North Korean weapons tests and Japan’s unmoving stance on GSOMIA, the South Korean leader displayed an apparent willingness to agree to a conditional extension of the pact.

The deal: Moon would keep Seoul in the pact should the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reconsider naming South Korea “untrustworthy” and scrap the export controls.

But Alexis Dudden, a Korea and Japan expert at the University of Connecticut, said that while an extension would be a “positive step,” politics would almost certainly prevent such a scenario.

“Unhelpfully, Team Abe has repeatedly appeared unwilling to take this offer for what it is: an effort to uphold the pact with dignity,” she said.

According to a Nikkei poll taken in late August and early September, the vast majority of the public supports Abe’s tough diplomatic stance against South Korea, with 67 percent of the respondents backing the export controls. Separately, 67 percent said Tokyo does not need to rush to improve ties with Seoul if it requires concessions.

Since September, Dudden said, Seoul has faced rising pressure from Tokyo and Washington, with Japan raising doubts about South Korea’s reliability as a security partner and the U.S. pressing it to stay in GSOMIA while also demanding it pay significantly more to help cover the costs of keeping 28,000 U.S. troops in the country.

“It makes for easy domestic political gain for Abe during yet another series of scandals, while Washington’s rudderless East Asia policy appears increasingly to border on attempts to extort both our allies,” Dudden said.