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The shock of South Korea’s withdrawal from GSOMIA

  • Japan and South Korea must work to reverse the process of escalation from historical frictions to economic and security-related frictions.

By Professor Tadashi Kimiya, The University of Tokyo

On August 22, the South Korean government overturned predictions by declaring its scrapping of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between itself and Japan. The move was a countermeasure against the announcement made by the Japanese government on August 2, giving advance notice of stricter export procedures for exports bound for South Korea. This change in Japan’s approach was undoubtedly a preventive countermeasure against President Moon Jae-in’s administration, which has effectively thrown out the 1965 Agreement on the Settlement of Problems concerning Property and Claims and on Economic Co-operation between Japan and the Republic of Korea by abandoning its obligations to make South Korean judicial decision.

Over the past year or so, the ongoing dispute between Japan and South Korea over historical problems has escalated into one that now encompasses not only economic, but also national security issues. To be sure, with the end of the Cold War, the relationship between the two countries transformed from an “asymmetrical and mutually complementary” one into a “symmetrical and mutually competitive” one. It has therefore become difficult for the two countries to compromise on points of contention as they once did; but this is now being worsened by the two governments’ handling of these situations.

It began with the South Korean government’s handling of the Supreme Court of South Korea’s ruling ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to wartime forced-laborers in October of last year. The ruling sought to break through a constraint, that the issue of the right to compensation for wartime labor claims had been “completely and finally” resolved under the 1965 agreement. It sought to do this by interpreting the scope of the treaty’s application more narrowly, in order to recognize the rights of victims to make such claims. Although this interpretation was supported by South Korea, the Japanese government judged it to be incompatible with the treaty. In that case, then South Korea should have taken the initiative and engaged in negotiations with Japan from an early stage, presenting a proposal that would enable both the judgment and the treaty to stand as they were, by creating a framework (with the cooperation of both Japanese and Korean companies) that would enable the handling of such law suits. President Moon Jae-in’s government, however, moved very sluggishly, and the proposal that it had at the time was not one that could have been presented in negotiations with the Japanese government.

Then it seems that the Japanese government’s patience ran out. On July 1, Japan suddenly announced export restrictions against South Korea. On August 2, Japan decided on additional measures, revising the Export Trade Control Order and lowering Korea’s export status from its previous Special Comprehensive (Bulk) License status to Individually Validated License status. As even Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself acknowledges, this was clearly a preventive countermeasure against further rulings on wartime forced labor. In spite of this, the official reason given by Japan was that it was a security measure. Moreover, the export restrictions themselves did not prohibit exports of important supplies to South Korea. Despite this, since the measure was taken before specific damages were incurred (in the form of seizure and encashment of the assets of Japanese companies in the country), the South Korean government regarded it as an act of economic retaliation, and President Moon has taken the lead in displaying a hardline anti-Japanese stance.

Although the problem was most likely that Japan could not say, with respect to international society, that this was a countermeasure against the forced-labor issue, this approach has now led to the South Korean government giving the excuse—since it was Japan (and not South Korea) that first began to view the export control situation as a security issue—that it is simply responding appropriately to the action taken by Japan. Giving the excuse that “Japan attacked first” has also enabled the Moon administration to eradicate criticisms in South Korea of its lack of appropriate policies with regard to Japan. This has actually had the effect of reversing the progress of efforts with regard to the forced-labor issue in South Korean society. I am still perplexed as to why Japan decided to go ahead with such measures at that particular time, and giving such an ambiguous reason.

Then came South Korea’s withdrawal from GSOMIA. Although, in itself, the withdrawal causes no real harm to the national security of either country, it is sure to cause massive cracks in the cooperative security relationship that exists between Japan, South Korea, and the United States. President Moon’s government is probably betting on the approach of involving only President Trump in the improvement of US-North Korean relations, thereby taking the lead in efforts to improve relations between North and South Korea. Accordingly, the administration’s view is that Prime Minister Abe’s foreign policy is not only unhelpful, but actually obstructive. From Japan’s perspective, it seems that the Moon administration’s foreign policy gives priority to the improvement of relations between the North and South, rather than the denuclearization of North Korea, and so Japan cannot give its support recklessly. If we consider this, there was already a divergence in diplomacy and security policy between Japan and South Korea, and it may be that the withdrawal from GSOMIA was simply a matter of time.

However, despite the fact that almost all in South Korea were united in supporting the hardline stance against Japan, around 40% are against the scrapping of GSOMIA. Japan is also frankly astonished by the move. The reason for this astonishment is probably that, even though the relationship between the two countries has the United States sandwiched in-between, Japan and South Korea still have a common interest with regard to the issue of how to handle North Korea and China. In that sense, surely what is needed most is for the two governments to work together, reaffirm their common interest with regard to national security, and seek to resolve the issues that have caused conflict between them; with the South Korean government making efforts with respect to rulings on the conscripted labor issue, and Japan responding by repealing its export restrictions against South Korea. That is surely what the people of both countries—who have enjoyed the fruits of Japanese-South Korean cooperation since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1965—wish to see.

The Japanese and South Korean governments should work to reverse the process of escalation from historical frictions to economic and security-related frictions, reaffirm the necessity of their cooperation on security issues, and work to resolve those historical and economic frictions based on that.


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