South Korea’s decision to pull out of the military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan endangers the close cooperation — not just between the two countries but also with their mutual ally, the United States — necessary to deal with the security threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Given the negative impact that a rift in trilateral cooperation could have on security in Northeast Asia, the South Korean government should rethink its decision to terminate the pact.
The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was concluded between Japan and South Korea in November 2016. The pact enabled the two governments to directly share and exchange confidential information on North Korea’s nuclear and missile development, which had previously been relayed only via the U.S. It was indeed a landmark agreement in the history of relations between Tokyo and Seoul, which continue to be frayed by differences over Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and other disputes.
There are views that the termination of the GSOMIA — which would take effect in November — will have only a symbolic impact on defense intelligence sharing because both countries will continue to have access to the information by way of the U.S., with which both countries have been proceeding to integrate defense information systems. Even if it’s only symbolic, however, the impact of the pact’s termination will not be small as it serves as an indication of South Korea’s intent to reject cooperation with Japan in general.
South Korea’s latest move shows how the fraying ties between Tokyo and Seoul — triggered by South Korean court rulings last year ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to Koreans whom they used as wartime labor during World War II, despite a 1965 bilateral agreement that settled the compensation issues — have led to trade rows and now a breakdown in defense cooperation.
The intelligence-sharing pact is automatically renewed each year — unless either side informs the other of its intention to terminate the pact at least 90 days before it is to be renewed. As the Saturday deadline was nearing for Seoul to notify Tokyo if it wanted to end the agreement, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga urged South Korea to extend the pact, saying it has contributed to peace and stability in the region and that despite the troubled bilateral relations, the two countries need to work together “in areas that require collaboration.”
In pulling the plug on the defense intelligence pact, the South Korean government charged that Japan’s recent tightening of its controls on exports to South Korea caused a “grave change” in their security cooperation and therefore it no longer was in South Korea’s “national interests” to extend the pact. We wonder if that judgment was premature.
The missiles that North Korea repeatedly fired in recent weeks are believed to a new type of short-range ballistic missile. Despite three summits between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump over the past 14 months, the prospects for the denuclearization of Kim’s regime remain unclear. This situation makes it all the more important for Japan, South Korea and the U.S. to maintain a close collaboration and share information in dealing with North Korea. Any move to backpedal on defense cooperation between Japan and South Korea, thus compromising trilateral collaboration in responding to Pyongyang’s threat, could send the wrong message to other parties with a stake in Northeast Asia’s security.
The South Korean government insists that its decision to terminate the defense intelligence pact was made due to doubts over its relationship of trust with Japan, and that it had nothing to do with its alliance with the U.S. However, the U.S. government has been increasingly worried over the worsening ties between its Northeast Asian allies, and has expressed its “strong concern” and “disappointment” over the latest decision by the administration of President Moon Jae-in. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. is urging the two countries to engage to put their relationship back to normal.
The fraying of ties between Tokyo and Seoul have begun to harm bilateral relations on various levels. A boycott of Japanese products has spread in South Korea, and the number of South Korean tourists to Japan, who account for roughly 20 percent of inbound travelers, dropped by 7.6 percent in July from a year ago. Exchange programs between private sector organizations have been canceled. A termination of the defense intelligence pact threatens to escalate the fraying of Japan-South Korea relations. We urge the Moon administration to think twice about its decision.