The Strategic Value of the General Security of Military Information Agreement
Bilateral relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea (here after South Korea) are presently the worst they have been since the two countries normalized relations in 1965. The disintegration of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in August 2019 is the latest and most significant demonstration of this bilateral rancor.
Geopolitical Strains in Northeast Asia
As the United States’ two main allies in Northeast Asia, both seemingly have a very strong basis for cooperation in place. Japan and South Korea are thriving democracies with long-running security alliances with the United States in a region full of potential threats.
North Korea continues to develop its nuclear weapons program, creating instability in the region. Meanwhile, China’s continuing economic rise has been accompanied by an escalation of tensions in the region, with the possibility for conflict in the East and South China Seas at its highest in recent memory.
Terminating the GSOMIA
Notwithstanding these factors, Tokyo and Seoul have yet to build the necessary foundation for a stable partnership due to historical grievances and recent trade disputes. The longtime bitterness over the issue of comfort women and the Liancourt Rocks territorial dispute continues to plague the relationship.
To make matters worse, following the removal from the preferred trade partner list (so-called white lists), on August 22, 2019, South Korea announced its withdrawal from the bilateral military information-sharing pact with Japan, known as the GSOMIA. Signed in 2016 amid a series of nuclear tests by North Korea, the GSOMIA authorized for comprehensive intelligence sharing between the two countries regarding Pyongyang’s provocative activities in the region.
Kim You-geun, deputy director of South Korea's presidential national security office, announces the decision to terminate GSOMIA in August 2019. Source: Korea Times
The termination of the intelligence-sharing pact immediately weakens the U.S.-South Korea alliance as it undermines the trilateral cooperation among U.S.-Japan-South Korea. Seoul’s decision plays right into the hands of regional threats – Pyongyang and Beijing – by weakening trilateral security cooperation between Washington and its two most significant allies in the Pacific.
What is more, the termination of the GSOMIA comes at a time when U.S.-Japan-South Korea are cooperating to deal with North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship. This development deteriorates the strategic partnership for the three countries, but benefits China, North Korea, and Russia: countries in opposition to trilateral cooperation.
Domestic Distractions Undermine Diplomacy
With both South Korea and the United States focused on domestic issues - corruption in politics, upcoming elections and an ensuing impeachment inquiry - it will be extremely difficult to offer suitable strategies to disjointed trilateral cooperation in the foreseeable future.
Diplomacy on the backburner? Trump at a rally in Greenville as electioneering for the the 2020 Presidential Election accelerates.
The current state of frozen relations between Tokyo and Seoul is frustrating to U.S. policymakers, who have no clear solution for dealing with the dilemma. Despite these sources of friction, a stable Japan-South Korea relationship is achievable if President Trump personally visits the region to contribute to bilateral discussions in a neutral, intermediary role.
A visit by President Trump to his chief supporters in Northeast Asia is not only overdue, but would be the most important diplomatic trip of his first term. His agenda is the key to successfully establishing security posture in the Asia-Pacific region. President Trump should highlight how trilateral cooperation will resolve a range of diplomatic challenges vis-à-vis North Korea.
Next Steps for Security Cooperation in Northeast Asia
The first step to improving cooperation on security matters between Japan and South Korea should be an immediate renewal of the GSOMIA. This would allow for the sharing of information on mutual security issues, which has proven beneficial to all three nations. By cooperating on common strategic interests and refraining from invoking nationalist ire in either country, Tokyo and Seoul can create a basis for more friendly and cooperative ties for the future. I posit these friendly relations, in turn, is conducive to resolving the long-standing issues that have affected the relationship over the decades.
Washington would likely incur negative consequences if it appeared to favor either Tokyo or Seoul, potentially creating an environment that is less favorable to trilateral cooperation than already exists. Nonetheless, by continuing to play a neutral, intermediary role, Washington can put pressure on both sides to take positive action in resolving these disputes.
The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.