South Korea now finds itself being squeezed between the US and Japan over its decision not to extend a military-information sharing accord with Tokyo, which is scheduled to expire late this month.
This is certainly not the situation President Moon Jae-in’s government in Seoul anticipated when it made the decision in August amid an escalating feud with Tokyo over the issue of compensating Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula.
At the time, Moon and his security aides apparently hoped the move would prompt the US to intervene to help settle the simmering row between its key Asian allies.
Seoul has since suggested it would be willing to reconsider the decision if Tokyo withdrew its measures to toughen control on exports of tech-related materials to South Korea and drop the country from its whitelist of preferred trading partners.
But against its expectations, Washington has largely stayed out of the Seoul-Tokyo discord, while urging the Moon government to maintain the military pact with Japan.
US officials have made it clear that they may help facilitate talks between South Korea and Japan, but would not play a role as “mediator or referee.” At the same time, they have cautioned that Seoul’s decision to scrap the intelligence-sharing accord would have a negative impact on US security interests by undermining efforts to cope with military threats from North Korea and other regional challenges.
Washington has considered the General Security of Military Information Agreement signed in 2016 under its auspices as a key tool for its trilateral defense cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo. The three-way collaboration is also seen as a crucial part of Washington’s broader Indo-Pacific strategy designed to counter China’s rising power in the region.
As a matter of course, Seoul’s termination of the accord with Tokyo would further irk US President Donald Trump’s administration, which has been increasing pressure on South Korea on multiple fronts, including defense costs and trade. It seems to be no coincidence that senior US officials handling security, economic and defense cost-sharing issues with Seoul gathered here this week for consultations with their local counterparts.
The increasing pressure from the US may be behind South Korea’s recent efforts to win a breakthrough in its strained ties with Japan, which Seoul hopes would give cause for retracting its decision not to extend the GSOMIA.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon stressed Seoul’s readiness to improve bilateral relations when he met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other officials in Tokyo last month during his trip there to attend Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony.
Moon and Abe held an 11-minute one-on-one “conversation” on the sidelines of a regional summit in Bangkok on Monday at Moon’s impromptu request. During their first meeting in more than a year, the two leaders agreed that Seoul-Tokyo ties were of importance and reaffirmed the principle of resolving pending bilateral issues through dialogue, according to Seoul officials. Moon himself on Tuesday described the meeting as “meaningful,” hoping it could be a starting point of dialogue for mending frayed ties between Seoul and Tokyo.
What troubles South Korea is the Abe administration’s intransigent stance that it will not step back unless the forced labor issue comes to an end based on its argument that all reparation issues were settled under a 1965 accord that normalized Seoul-Tokyo relations. Tokyo’s trade restrictions on Seoul came as an apparent reprisal for last year’s ruling by the Supreme Court here that ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean victims of forced labor.
It was an ill-conceived move for the Moon administration to counter Tokyo’s trade curbs over a historical dispute by placing a security pact at stake. Its latest efforts to redress ties with Tokyo stand in sharp contrast to its misleading attempt to fan anti-Japanese sentiment here in the summer. The Moon government should be held responsible for making too little of a sensitive security matter, if the attempt, as some critics suggest, was motivated to deflect attention from a scandal involving one of Moon’s close associates.
Given Washington’s firm stance, it could hardly be an option for Seoul to justify the eventual termination of the information-sharing accord by highlighting Tokyo’s intransigent attitude.
It needs to go beyond proposing to raise a joint compensation fund with contributions from Japanese and South Korean firms. Seoul’s new approach might call for additional donations from the South Korean government and ordinary citizens in both nations.
Japan is also advised to be more flexible to give South Korea room for retracting the decision regarding the GSOMIA.
If Tokyo continues to be uncompromising, the Moon administration might have to pay for its inconsiderate and miscalculated move.