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[Editorial] Risky bet

GSOMIA decision doomed to hurt Korea’s security; Questionable if follow-up steps are in place

In response to Tokyo’s export curbs against South Korea, President Moon Jae-in’s administration decided to terminate its military intelligence sharing pact with Japan. But Japan has not flinched yet and a crisis in the alliance with the US looms large.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley visited Seoul last week for the annual Security Consultative Meeting with South Korea. It is rare for both US defense secretary and JCS chief to visit Korea together for the meeting.

The General Security of Military Information Agreement was not on SCM agenda, but the US urged South Korea not to end the deal during the meeting. Cheong Wa Dae said Esper raised the issue when he met with Moon. This shows the agreement matters a lot to the US as well as to Korea and Japan.

In a meeting with Esper at Cheong Wa Dae on Friday, Moon expressed an intent to reconsider abandoning the deal if Japan retracts export restrictions. The accord is scheduled to expire at midnight on Nov. 22 unless there is a change in Korea-Japan relations over the issue.

At a news conference earlier in the day with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo after the SCM, Esper said that “GSOMIA is an important tool by which South Korea, the US and Japan share effective information, particularly in times of war.” He also said that “the only ones who benefit from the expiration of GSOMIA and continued friction between Seoul and Tokyo are Pyongyang and Beijing.”

This was a message that the deal concerns security interests not only of South Korea and Japan but also of the US. But Moon effectively rejected Esper’s demand by sending the ball into Japan’s court.

In August, Washington reacted strongly to Seoul’s decision on the agreement, using words such as “disappointment” and “strong concern.” For the first time, it also raised issues with Korea’s military drills around its easternmost islets also claimed by Japan.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s administration looks intransigent. It argues export curbs should be treated differently from the pact, and has reportedly conveyed to the US its position not to respond to Seoul’s proposal that it retract export measures in exchange with Seoul renewing the agreement.

Tokyo tightened export controls against Korea after the Supreme Court in Seoul ruled in 2018 that Japanese firms compensate Korean victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule. Tokyo argues all reparation issues were settled under a 1965 accord that normalized South Korea-Japan relations. To solve GSOMIA conflicts from the root, the issue of the ruling must be resolved. Seoul must not shun this problem just because the ruling came amid Moon’s drive to fight judicial evils of the past governments.

Foreign and defense ministries are said to have opposed scrapping the deal, but Cheong Wa Dae decided to withdraw it. The decision fueled anti-Japanese sentiment. Moon supporters led a boycott of Japanese products, condemning critics of the decision as collaborators with Japanese invaders. Moon and ruling party lawmakers fostered jingoism. Now, they are quiet about the boycott, waiting for signals from Tokyo that will justify them if they reconsider the GSOMIA decision.

Washington officials and defense experts have noted that the agreement is a key part of triangle security cooperation among the US, South Korea and Japan and that it is important particularly to South Korea’s security. If the deal is scrapped, Seoul will likely face a big aftermath in the form of a reeling US alliance and its weakened surveillance of North Korea.

However, it is questionable if the government can handle the aftereffect. Under the agreement, Seoul could obtain information quickly and efficiently from Japanese military assets including surveillance satellites that it does not have. How can South Korea reconnoiter North Korean submarines with its ground radars? Cheong Wa Dae keeps mum about such questions.

Discarding the pact will certainly put Korea in harm’s way. Using the deal as a negotiating chip was a self-injurious and risky bet. Exiting the deal can be viewed in the US as a declaration of Seoul neglecting its alliance.

Chief of the National Security Office defended the decision to abandon the agreement, saying it is a matter of Korea and Japan and that it had nothing to do with the US alliance. It is doubtful if Cheong Wa Dae made the GSOMIA decision based on the accurate understanding of the accord.