Commentary / Japan | C Commentary

Was Seoul's decision on GSOMIA strategic?

by Kuni Miyake

“GSOMIA saved: Seoul to stay in deal for now” was the front page headline of The Japan Times’ Nov. 23 edition. South Korea’s Blue House announced the night before that it will reverse course on its earlier decision to end a key intelligence-sharing pact with Japan — just hours before the expected expiry of the deal, said the article.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he believed South Korea’s decision was a “strategic” one in view of the North Korean threat. Conservative pundits in Tokyo claimed a “perfect victory” and exulted that Seoul, “being forced to tentatively retreat,” “surrendered at the last moment” in its “diplomatic implosion.”

Abe would have been right in calling South Korea’s decision a strategic one if it had been spontaneous. Strategic decisions, however, are not something forced to make. Similarly, it cannot be deemed a “perfect victory” for Japan, because Seoul’s decision was so tactical that the issue will continue to haunt us.

Incidentally, for the South Koreans, the General Security of Military Information Agreement was not “saved.” It was wise and sensible of this newspaper to change the headline to “GSOMIA survives” for its online version. Also, Seoul did not “reverse course,” either. As Yonhap News Agency reported, Seoul just decided to “conditionally suspend,” not to “reverse,” the termination of the pact.

Most carpingly, while the Japan-South Korea GSOMIA was the front page lead of The Japan Times, the simultaneously delivered New York Times print edition didn’t carry any GSOMIA-related news at all. Only Japanese, Koreans, some Chinese and American Asia hands seemed to be interested in this issue.

Fault-finding, however, is not my objective here. All I want is for the readers to have as accurate and objective knowledge as possible about this South Korean decision. It was just a tactical suspension of the effect of notifying Japan of the termination of GSOMIA, period. The following is my latest take on our enduring bilateral tragedy.

1. GSOMIA is essentially a Seoul-Washington issue

Some anti-Seoul hardliners in Tokyo claim that this diplomatic victory was a result of Japan’s resolute attitude vis-a-vis South Korea. Maybe so, but the most effective was, of course, the pressure from Washington. The flood of visits by the defense secretary and other high-ranking U.S. officials seemed to have cornered Seoul.

Ultimately, GSOMIA is not a simple Japan-South Korea issue. It is an indispensable joint to make the U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateral security arrangements work in the event of armed contingencies. If it were just another Tokyo-Seoul dispute, South Koreans would not and maybe could not have made such a difficult compromise.

2. Tokyo-Seoul ties have never been good

This is not the first time for Washington to work behind the scenes to facilitate almost unreachable agreements between Japan and South Korea. As early as in 1951, at the request from South Korean President Syngman Rhee, the United States started mediations between Tokyo and Seoul that culminated in the 1965 basic relations treaty.

More recently, the “foreign ministers’ joint announcement” of December 2015 on the issue of “comfort women” and the conclusion of the Japan-South Korea GSOMIA in November 2016 could not have been agreed upon without explicit or implicit U.S. mediation groundwork.

3. Moon daydreams while Trump tweets

The U.S. mediation efforts this time must have been much more difficult than before. It is partly because South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a left-wing liberal nationalist, does not believe in the security alliance with the U.S., while his U.S. counterpart is tweeting day and night on issues other than GSOMIA.

Washington could have easily avoided exerting the bitter and unprecedented last-minute pressure on this querulous U.S. ally if U.S. President Donald Trump had personally focused and ordered systematic mediation on this issue much earlier, as many of his predecessors had done.

4. Seoul’s decision was by no means strategic

If a strategy is the science and art of employing political, economic, psychological and military forces of a nation to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace or war, it must be a spontaneous outcome of deep thoughts. In this sense, the South Korean move was hardly strategic and never a victory for Japan.

Seoul’s decision was a result of political and diplomatic compromise. It tried to justify a concession to Japan or the U.S. while wooing Washington to reduce its host nation support. Such a halfway measure may not survive the next dispute with Tokyo or Washington.

5. Another “art of the deal”

Although Seoul’s decision to suspend the termination of GSOMIA may not solve the bilateral disputes in the long run, the Japanese, South Korean and probably American diplomats involved showed great negotiating skills. It was truly another “art of the deal,” which Trump has claimed he masters.

It is ironic to say that their success was made in part because Trump was not involved and never tweeted about this delicate dispute between the two most important U.S. allies in East Asia. The Japanese and South Korean officials may have to thank the U.S. president for being indifferent to this issue.

6. Tokyo must be prepared for the worse

This is not the end of the dispute. Rather, it is just a beginning of another new round in a boxing match. Tokyo was lucky this time to make the best use of the U.S. pressure on Seoul. The next time, however, Japan may not be able to repeat it, if the dispute over the former wartime laborers from the Korean Peninsula further deteriorates.

While giving in to the South Korean rhetoric is out of question, resolute and uncompromising measures will not put sensitive bilateral issues on hold. The only solution would be to “agree to disagree” as we did until the 1990s. Have we forgotten that skill, or do the South Koreans simply don’t even want to agree to disagree?

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