NAGOYA/TOKYO – Tokyo and Seoul may be breathing sighs of relief — even if it is just for the time being — after Friday’s surprise announcement by South Korea to retain a key intelligence-sharing pact. But the issue at the heart of strained bilateral ties — wartime labor — remains far from being resolved.
And experts point out that bilateral relations still face a rocky road ahead in overcoming the two sides’ long-standing antagonism over history.
Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi appears to be well aware of the bleak prospect of a full detente. When he faced reporters Friday night, he did so without any hint of a smile.
“The current biggest and most fundamental issue is that concerning former laborers from the Korean Peninsula. We’d like to keep demanding that South Korea eliminate the situation that violates international law as soon as possible,” Motegi said.
Motegi said South Korea probably made the decision after considering the security situation and the importance of military cooperation with Japan and the United States.
On Friday, just hours before the expected expiry of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), South Korea said it would reverse its earlier decision to scrap the pact.
At the same time, the two sides agreed to resume talks between senior officials over stricter export measures Japan imposed on South Korea earlier this year.
Hideki Okuzono, associate professor of Korean studies at the University of Shizuoka, said Japan and South Korea avoided the worst-case scenario of a further escalation of their diplomatic row.
But the neighbors still need to tackle two tough issues: Japan’s export control measures covering key items for South Korea, and the wartime labor compensation issue, Okuzono said.
“Negotiations on those issues will start from now,” he said.
Bilateral ties flared anew late last year when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation for wartime forced labor despite a 1965 pact that was concluded to settle all post-colonial compensation issues.
Japan introduced the new export control measures in July and, despite Tokyo’s denials, the move has been widely regarded as retaliation for Seoul’s inaction on the wartime labor issue.
The dispute escalated in August when Seoul announced its plan to scrap GSOMIA.
In the hours after Friday’s surprise announcement, there appeared to be conflicting views of what caused the pact to be removed from the chopping block.
South Korea claimed the decision was made after concessions from the Japanese side in agreeing to talks in their monthslong fight over the export control measures.
Tokyo, on the other hand, said it was merely because Seoul dropped a case against them at the World Trade Organization.
Motegi and other Japanese officials have repeatedly emphasized that GSOMIA and the export control measures are separate issues.
But despite the discrepancies, it was ultimately a decision based on the strategic and security situation in the region, said Andrew Yeo, an assistant professor of politics at Catholic University in Washington.
“The (GSOMIA) announcement was intended to address this (security) issue and create more space for bilateral — and trilateral — relations to move forward, or at least not take further steps backwards, not to resolve some of the bigger issues surrounding Japan-ROK relations,” Yeo said, using the acronym for South Korea’s formal name, the Republic of Korea.
“But without addressing deeper issues of historical contention, the GSOMIA decision remains a temporary patch to staunch a wound,” he said. “Nevertheless, sometimes you have to stop the bleeding first before you can mend wounds.”
The U.S. was also behind the push to save GSOMIA, apparently fearing the loss of the pact could change the power balance in the region and weaken the trilateral military and diplomatic cooperation between Japan, South Korea and the U.S. against North Korea, China and Russia.
“My message to (Japan and South Korea) was, ‘Look, I understand the historical issues. I understand the recent items that prompted it, but we have far greater concerns … that involve Pyongyang and Beijing,'” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Thursday in Vietnam.
GSOMIA has allowed Tokyo and Seoul to share sensitive military secrets since it was signed in 2016, including those concerning Pyongyang’s ballistic missiles and nuclear programs.
The pact has also streamlined trilateral communications between the two countries and the U.S., as Washington has a similar agreement with both Tokyo and Seoul.
The U.S. effort to keep GSOMIA alive appears to have played a big role in changing South Korea’s mind. President Moon Jae-in started warming up to Japan only after senior U.S. officials publicly started calling on Seoul to reverse course on scrapping the pact.
Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official who worked on issues affecting the Koreas, called those moves “a function of South Korean regret and American desperation.”
“South Korea’s decision to leave GSOMIA was an epic miscalculation, one that wrongly assumed Washington wouldn’t react as negatively as it did and that GSOMIA withdrawal could give Seoul leverage versus Japan,” Oba said.
Ongoing South Korean talks with the U.S. over military cost-sharing may have also played a part in the decision, with the thought of further antagonizing Washington likely weighing heavily on Moon’s mind.
Seoul and Washington have held several rounds of heated talks on how much the South pays for having U.S. forces stationed there. The White House has reportedly demanded Seoul cough up $5 billion annually in hosting costs — a fivefold increase — prompting the latest round of talks to break down.
“While the two issues may not have been directly linked, it’s not helpful to walk into a room with U.S. negotiators who already think South Korea is not being a constructive ally,” Oba said.