South Korea’s exit from intelligence-sharing pact with Japan will complicate defense, US warns

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, center, poses with his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, left, and his Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, after their trilateral meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, Aug. 2, 2019.


By KIM GAMEL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 27, 2019

SEOUL, South Korea — The United States stepped up criticism of South Korea’s withdrawal from a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, warning it will complicate defense and “increase risk to U.S. forces.”

The unusually blunt statement on Monday came amid concerns that Seoul’s decision to exit the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, is the latest blow to U.S. influence in the region.

Underscoring the high stakes, North Korea has conducted seven missile and rocket tests since July 25, most recently on Saturday, expanding its arsenal amid stalled nuclear talks with Washington.

Chinese and Russian fighter jets also recently flew in a show of force though air space disputed between South Korea and Japan.

The State Department said Monday it was “deeply disappointed and concerned” that South Korea has terminated the agreement.

“This will make defending [South Korea] more complicated and increase risk to U.S. forces,” spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus wrote in a tweet.

The Pentagon expressed similar concern after the decision was announced last week. “We strongly believe that the integrity of our mutual defense and security ties must persist despite frictions in other areas of the [South Korea]-Japan relationship,” it said.

The United States maintains some 28,500 servicemembers in South Korea and54,000 in Japan, as well as supersonic bombers and other strategic assets serving as a bulwark against North Korea and China.

The 2016 signing of the military information agreement was seen as a diplomatic victory for the U.S. by bringing its two closest Asian allies together despite their bitter historical enmity.

On a practical level, it enabled the traditional rivals to streamline intelligence sharing instead of relying on the U.S. as a mediator.

South Korea announced Thursday it was terminating the pact due to an escalating trade spat with Japan. The foreign ministry insisted the decision had been made in “close communication” with the United States.

But many observers said the move signals a growing rift in the alliance at a critical time as China and Russia are eager to fill the vacuum in regional leadership.

“Although few have said it out loud, Korea’s decision to pull out of its three-year-old military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan despite strong U.S. objections is nothing less than open rebellion,” columnist Oh Young-jin wrote Tuesday in The Korea Times.

“It marks a major departure from the role of junior partner that Korea plays in its alliance with the U.S., coming as U.S. regional stewardship is being challenged by a growing China,” he added.

Here’s a look at how the situation unraveled:

The agreement

Japan and South Korea signed theagreement on Nov. 23, 2016, to facilitate sensitive intelligence sharing as North Korea was stepping up its nuclear and missile testing activity.

The two countries had been debating such a deal for decades. South Korea aborted a previous effort in 2012 due to strong domestic opposition. It was signed toward the end of the administrations of President Barack Obama and South Korea’s soon-to-be ousted conservative President Park Geun-hye.

The exchange of information enabled both sides to tap into different assets as the Japanese have satellites and other high-tech reconnaissance capabilities while the South Koreans can provide more human intelligence and wireless communications from the North.

The three countries have other information-exchange mechanisms, but experts say canceling the agreement will likely slow the process because South Korea and Japan will have to go through the U.S. instead of communicating directly.

Under the framework, South Korea and Japan exchanged classified information 29 times, including seven times this year on North Korean weapons tests, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

The deal was automatically renewed each year unless either side provided a 90-day notice of termination. South Korea delivered its notice on Friday so the agreement will expire in November.

Historical feud

South Koreans and Japan have sparred for decades over how to deal with the legacy of Japan’s brutal 1910-45 occupation of the peninsula, including the forced conscription of labor and the use of Korean women as sex slaves.

South Korea’s supreme court ruled last year that Japanese corporations should compensate Korean victims of forced labor. Japan insists that all claims from the colonial period were resolved by a 1965 treaty that normalized relations between the two countries.

In 2015, Tokyo and Seoul also signed a “comfort women” agreement that allocated more than $8 million to survivors. New tensions boiled over when Japan decided earlier this summer to remove South Korea from a so-called white list of trusted trading partners and restricted the exports of chemicals needed by high-tech industries.

Seoul accused Tokyo of economic retaliation for the court decision, although Japan insisted the trade restrictions were for security reasons. South Korea also removed Japan from its list of trusted trading partners. 

In announcing its decision on Thursday, South Korea said Japan’s allegations about security concerns undermined trust between the two nations and the intelligence-sharing agreement was no longer in its national interest.

South Korea also began a two-day military exercises Sunday asserting control over islets off its eastern coast that are also claimed by Japan.

Warships and planes as well as ground forces descended on the largely uninhabited islets, which South Korea calls Dokdo and Japan calls Takeshima.

Tokyo criticized the drills, as relations between the countries have deteriorated to the worst levels in decades.

Mediation efforts

The U.S. has long faced a delicate balance in dealing with the fraught relations between its two closest Asian allies. “It’s like a full-time job getting involved between Japan and South Korea,” President Donald Trump told reporters last month.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to bridge the gap during an Aug. 2 meeting with the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers on the sidelines of a regional forum in Thailand.

The Chinese foreign minister also met with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts in what was seen as an effort by Beijing to assert its influence.

China opposed the Korea-Japan agreement at its inception in 2016, claiming it would worsen tensions with the North. But the Chinese called on Tokyo and Seoul to continue dialogue during the trilateral meeting shortly before South Korea announced its decision.

Twitter: @kimgamel