Commentary / Japan

The silent foreign policy establishment

by Kuni Miyake

Last week, South Korea announced that it would end the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) which was signed with Japan only three years ago. While many people in Tokyo and some in Seoul wondered why South Korea made such a move, it was shocking but not surprising.

The reason is crystal clear: Neither Tokyo nor Seoul can now back off for domestic political reasons, while Washington remains unwilling, or probably unable, to mediate for its two East Asian allies. What’s most worrisome, however, is the suffering of the foreign policy/national security establishment in both Seoul and Washington.

Silence seems to be golden in South Korea. This kind of sudden and bold national security decisions would never have been made in 20th-century South Korea. There are great strategic thinkers and competent foreign policy/national security experts in Seoul but most of them will not speak out. Why?

The situation is similar in the United States. Asia-hands in or outside the administration of President Donald Trump could have effectively reminded South Korea of the red line of the GSOMIA but they probably failed to do so. Why?

The South Korean decision will potentially derail the traditional tripartite security alliance mechanism that has stabilized Northeast Asia for the past seven decades. The following is my take on why the South Korean decision was made while those experts remained silent.

First, seen from Tokyo, Seoul’s decision to terminate the intelligence-sharing pact was nothing but a strategically suicidal mistake. South Korean President Moon Jae-in seems to have sacrificed long-term national interests for short-term domestic political gains at the expense of the existing Seoul-Washington-Tokyo alliance and security coordination.

Media reports from Seoul suggests that the GSOMIA decision was prompted by a potentially major political scandal, or that the Blues House has no ears for serious suggestions from experts who, for their part, would rather keep their mouth shut since they are afraid of being criticized for being too soft on Japan.

Washington’s response was also too little and too late. While U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “we’re disappointed to see the decision” by Seoul, U.S. President Donald Trump, before his departure for the Group of Seven summit, only stated that he would “see what happens with South Korea” after its withdrawal from the GSOMIA. Surprisingly, he even never tweeted on this issue.

Trump seems less interested in salvaging the GSOMIA because such an effort would not win votes in the 2020 presidential election. The departments of state and defense must have tried hard, but probably could not succeed in sending the right signal to Seoul at the summit level. Nobody wants to challenge the president now.

This is not to blame the best and brightest foreign policy experts in Washington or Seoul, who must have worked hard to prevent Seoul from making that decision. The real problem, however, is neither Moon nor his foreign policy advisors, but rather the era of uncertainty that we recently entered.

As in the 1930s, we once again have entered an era of uncertainty where decisions by “intuition, coincidence and misjudgment” prevail again. Trump, Moon, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping have already started making irreversibly wrong decisions, and they will most likely continue to do so. This is the East Asia in which Japan exists.

Political decisions by intuition, coincidence and misjudgment creates a “new normal” under which another series of wrong decisions continue to be made by intuition, coincidence and misjudgment.

In my view, the cascade for the GSOMIA fiasco started this way: First, when Moon took office, out of misjudgment he started changing South Korea’s foreign policy to make his nation prouder and more independent. Second, in March last year, the U.S. president, going on intuition, decided to meet the North Korean dictator in June.

Third, Moon mistook this as a sign for the U.S. to endorse Seoul’s new foreign policy.

Fourth, to win domestic support, Seoul took advantage of the coincidentally deteriorating Japan-South Korea relations at the cost of the overall tripartite foreign policy/national security interests in Northeast Asia.

Fifth, Tokyo coincidentally, but not intuitively, started losing its decade-long patience vis-a-vis Seoul after the bilateral 1965 basic treaty was effectively nullified. Finally, the U.S. president, out of misjudgment, was so indifferent that he was unwilling to prevent this bilateral feud from damaging the tripartite security arrangements.

The recent U.S. efforts are too little and too late. Public diplomacy will not work for such a delicate bilateral issue. What is required from Washington at a time like this is a combination of the president’s strong determination and his professional quiet diplomacy, including behind-the-scene ground work. This is impossible under the Trump administration

All in all, the damage was already done. In the short run, the Japan-U.S.-South Korea alliance may be maintained despite the GSOMIA fiasco but in the future the robust tripartite security arrangements may not last long unless well-concerted simultaneous efforts are made jointly by the three allies.

Now is the time for the experts to act. Blaming politicians or keeping silent will not solve the problems we all face. We must speak out and tell the policymakers the truth and reality. That’s the only way to prevent an era like in the 1930s, when decisions by intuition, coincidence and misjudgment prevailed.

Tokyo, on its part, must create a new foreign policy decision-making process to cope with the period of uncertainties. It must continue to overcome the temptations of instinctively formulating foreign policies. Otherwise, we will be trapped again in the vicious cycle of decisions by intuition, coincidence and misjudgment.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.