South Korea decided Friday not to let lapse the bilateral military information sharing agreement with Japan. The unexpected move, which came only hours before the pact was to have been terminated, was greeted with relief in Tokyo and Washington. It is an important recognition of the value of that agreement.
Significantly, however, Seoul has emphasized that the move is “provisional” — much depends on discussions between the two governments on the broader state of bilateral relations, in particular, Japan’s readiness to restore South Korea to its “white list” of countries with which it trades. And while both governments insist otherwise, that, in turn, rests on their ability to resolve contentious historical issues that continue to poison ties.
Seoul said three months ago that it would not renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a pact concluded with Japan three years ago that allows the two countries to exchange confidential information on security threats, most notably those posed by North Korea. For all the controversy it has generated, GSOMIA is a routine and basic document that merely outlines the form by which such exchanges should occur. Many militaries have them and they are not usually the subject of dispute.
Seoul’s decision followed the removal of South Korea from Japan’s “white list” of countries for which prior approval for the export of sensitive products was not required. Officially Tokyo acted out of concern that Seoul did not have a proper export controls regime and as a result, sensitive products were not subject to sufficient scrutiny before being exported. But many believed that the decision reflected anger over the South Korean top court rulings ordering Japanese firms to pay damages for their use of Koreans for wartime labor, an issue that Japan insists was settled under the terms of the agreements concluded when ties were normalize in 1965.
This tit-for tat, hopscotching from one issue to another allows both countries to say they are not responding in kind while permitting each to claim that it is the truly aggrieved party. The result is a piling up of grievances that threatens to do real damage to the national interest of each country.
GSOMIA may be a basic document, but it plays a vital security role. Japan and South Korea are integral to each other’s defense and the efficient and effective exchange of information between them is the foundation of their cooperation. The claim that they can use alternative means or go through the U.S. to communicate is dangerous. In a crisis, there is no time to lose and there is the risk of playing a game of telephone — with resulting misunderstandings — in a critical moment.
Equally important is the symbolic value of the agreement. GSOMIA is a demonstration of the will of the two governments to work together and a sign that they truly understand and share priorities. Allowing GSOMIA to lapse would expose a rift between the two countries that adversaries would be too happy to exploit. And a deterioration of defense relations with Japan at the very moment that Seoul signed an agreement to promote closer security relations with China, as occurred last week at a regional defense ministers meeting in Bangkok, would confirm for many that South Korea is loosening ties with the U.S.-created and -led regional security order and moving closer to Beijing.
Pressure from Washington played a big role in South Korea’s last-minute decision, with a parade of U.S. officials pushing Seoul to reverse course. That is ironic given the claim that Seoul put GSOMIA on the table to get U.S. attention in its larger dispute with Japan. If that is correct, then the tactic backfired. Significantly, South Korea insists that suspension is “provisional” and that GSOMIA could be terminated “at any time.” Seoul still seeks movement by Japan on the export controls issue; Japanese officials dismiss a linkage between the two. Still, there appears to be some progress. Seoul said that it was halting a dispute settlement procedure at the World Trade Organization because the two governments agreed to resume long-suspended talks on export controls and both sides promised to make them “meaningful.”
Resumption of the talks constitutes a second step; their successful conclusion would be a third. But the real problem is a shared understanding of the history of Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and the meaning and legal impact of the 1965 treaty that normalized relations between the two countries. Japan argues that an accord accompanying the treaty settled all claims against Japanese entities stemming from the colonial rule; South Korea disagrees. Seoul should accept the validity of that accord, a move that would actually open the door to a settlement of those grievances. It requires creative diplomacy and courage. Last week’s GSOMIA decision suggests that there is still hope for a solution.