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Backing down on GSOMIA’s abolishment: How should Japan deal with South Korea redefining the battle lines?

  • Backing down on GSOMIA’s abolishment: How should Japan deal with South Korea redefining the battle lines?

By Professor Kan Kimura

Despite South Korea declaring in August that it would abolish the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan, the South Korean government announced on November 22nd that the abolishment would be “postponed with conditions.”

This announcement came right on the eve of the agreement’s expiration. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha explained that the ending of GSOMIA would be postponed until “Japan repeals its strict export control measures on South Korea,” and asserted that “South Korea retains the right to end GSOMIA at any time.”

In reality, Japan has only agreed to discuss the export controls with South Korea at this stage and has itself not taken any specific measures to repeal them. Japan had planned from the outset for the export control measures to be followed by discussion with South Korea; in no way is Japan compromising here. In other words, South Korea’s decision to use the start of talks as a one-sided excuse to fan public opinion back home has essentially amounted to South Korea extending GSOMIA unconditionally.

So why did the South Korean government take these measures? It goes without saying that South Korea was under pressure from Washington. Over the last few weeks, the U.S. government has tied the issue to the problem of who will pay for U.S. military stationed in South Korea, indicating to South Korean media outlets that it may reduce the number of U.S. forces stationed in the country.

These actions, taken at this time, obviously suggest that if South Korea had put its foot down on abolishing GSOMIA, the U.S. government would have exercised a firmer hand in negotiations over cost-bearing for U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, and perhaps it would have reduced military force or even ordered troops to withdrawal altogether.

The U.S. thus put pressure on the very idea of stationing of U.S. troops in South Korea, and moreover, on its alliance with South Korea itself. South Korea, unprepared for such a significant change in its relationship with the U.S., had no choice but to cave to this pressure.

This situation suggests several things of which Japan should take heed. First, that it was ultimately pressure from the U.S. over security concerns which led South Korea to compromise, not Japan’s tighter export control measures (i.e. not its economic strength). To put it another way, it means that both Japan and South Korea will have difficulty solving future issues between them without U.S. intervention.

Second, it was clear from the beginning that GSOMIA’s abolishment would generate massive backlash from the U.S. Nonetheless, South Korea hesitated to “postpone” the abolishment for as long as possible anyway, regardless of the heavy pressure it was under. This means that powers within the current South Korean administration which acutely understand the importance of U.S.-South Korea relations exist alongside powers that want to exert heavy pressure on Japan, even at the risk of damaging South Korea’s alliance with the U.S. Neither have placed due importance on the country’s relationship with Japan.

Within the current South Korean administration, Japan’s importance to South Korea, including its relationship with regards to issues of historical recognition and matters of economy, has fallen greatly, and public interest leans overwhelmingly towards domestic issues.

Be that as it may, why did South Korea risk its relationship with the U.S., given that it had so remarkably devalued its relationship with Japan? The real reason is a sharp decline in South Korea’s understanding of how important its alliance with America truly is.

For example, a public opinion poll conducted by Realmeter in January of this year showed 58.7% opposed to increased spending on U.S. troops stationed in South Korea. Since any increased costs would obviously be borne by the South Korean people, this number is not surprising. What is surprising, rather, is that 52% said they would oppose even if U.S. were to clearly state it will reduce troop numbers or withdraw in the event that South Korea does not agree to increase spending on stationed U.S. troops.

It goes without saying that this situation forces the South Korean government to expand efforts to secure profit from a different issue, even if it means sacrificing South Korea’s alliance with the U.S.

Ultimately, the GSOMIA between Japan and South Korea will narrowly survive for now, thanks to the dedicated efforts of the U.S. It is very unclear how long Washington’s intervention will last, however. Today’s worsening South Korea-Japan relations stem from disputes over the interpretation of agreements conferring right to compensation for wartime labourers and other workers, and there have been no developments on that front.

If the U.S. is satisfied by the extension of GSOMIA and loses its interest in supporting diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea, that relationship may once again face a deadlock. South Korea’s basic strategy seems to be exchanging one cause for antagonism for another -- switching out Japan’s refusal to acknowledge historical facts -- including forced wartime labour -- with economic issues, such as these export control measures. If Japan ill-advisedly declares victory now, it will be unclear what message the export controls were meant to send to South Korea in the first place.

At the end of the day, the situation amounted to South Korea merely redrawing the battle lines -- withdrawing its threat of “abolishing GSOMIA” which it mistakenly blew out of proportion. As these national security concerns fade into the background, the U.S. will lose interest and Japan will be forced to once again face off against South Korea alone.

As the issue surrounding these export control measures attracts more attention, concern surrounding the recognition of historical fact -- which Japan originally asserted to be the cause -- is petering out. As South Korea redefines the battle lines, it seems Japan will need to once again rework its strategy.

(Kan Kimura is Professor at Kobe University, Japan.)


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