The Key US Role in Keeping GSOMIA Alive


On November 22, South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced a conditional decision to cancel the expiry of the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan. Satō Masaru, a former analyst in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, breaks down the background to the move.

Satō Masaru

Born in Tokyo in 1960. Former senior analyst in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he earned high marks from his overseas counterparts as a diplomatic intelligence specialist. After studying Russian at the British Defence School of Languages, worked in the Japanese embassy in Moscow, building a network of information channels in the Kremlin. As an author, his works include Kokka no wana (The Trap of the State) and Jikai suru teikoku (The Self-Destructing Empire).

Shoring Up the Tripartite Security System

INTERVIEWER  How was it possible to head off the expiry of the General Security of Military Information Agreement between Japan and South Korea? And before going into the diplomatic maneuvering of the two countries and the United States, what is the significance of GSOMIA for international politics in the East Asia region?

SATŌ MASARU  The emergence of China as a naval power has raised tensions in East Asia. Through its alliances with Japan and South Korea, the United States acted as a hub for a tripartite security system that played an important role in deterring China, along with North Korea and Russia, from using military might as a means of solving disputes. But one side of the triangle was missing—a Japanese-South Korean alliance. This was a major weak point.

GSOMIA helped to shore up the soft underbelly of the system. Usually military intelligence exchange requires a tight relationship among the countries involved, and the agreement was concluded in 2016 at the strong recommendation of the United States, which hoped it could thereby complete the triangle.

INTERVIEWER  It did increase the speed of information-sharing on North Korean missiles.

SATŌ  That’s right. Two years earlier, in 2014, the three countries had entered a Trilateral Information Sharing Arrangement, but there was a chance that this would not operate quickly enough when it was needed in an emergency. Details about missiles launched by North Korea were conveyed between the governments of South Korea and Japan via the US administration, but there were constraints in the form of rules concerning third parties, and Washington could not pass intelligence to Tokyo without Seoul’s agreement. GSOMIA considerably improved this situation.

However, as relations with Japan worsened, South Korean President Moon Jae-in became increasingly inclined to scrap the agreement. This risked ripping open the tripartite security system that had helped the parties manage issues arising in the region. Fearing that further deterioration in the three-way alliance would let North Korea conduct more ballistic and nuclear testing with new kinds of missiles, US security experts felt a heightened sense of crisis.

The United States as Central Actor

INTERVIEWER  If cracks appeared in the US-centered alliance, this wouldn’t just be an issue for Japan–South Korea relations. It could also reflect negatively on the diplomatic and security clout of the superpower itself.

SATŌ  Indeed. The Japanese and South Korean media reported that President Donald Trump’s government came in as a mediator to prevent GSOMIA from expiring. But it’s quite clear that the United States would be the party most impacted by an unraveling agreement. For this reason most of all, the US government wanted to maintain a fully operational tripartite security system.

US government diplomatic and security teams called on all their resources to work first on Seoul and then on Tokyo. As evidence for this, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell met directly with senior South Korean officials and pressed them to compromise. Under this level of siege, I think even President Moon would have had to wave the white flag. It would be a different story if Seoul was prepared to tear up the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, though . . . The Trump government demanded some 4.7 billion dollars from South Korea—a fivefold increase—as payment for hosting US troops, and leaked the possibility of withdrawing some soldiers as a way to compel maintenance of GSOMIA.

INTERVIEWER  In negotiations with the US government, Seoul was tenacious in pressing for Washington to avoid expiry of the agreement by persuading Tokyo to withdraw regulations limiting South Korean exports of semiconductor materials.

SATŌ  The administration of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō was braced for South Korea’s GSOMIA withdrawal. Accordingly, it clearly told the United States that it had no intention of loosening restrictions on South Korean exports. Yet, as these were negotiations, Japan probably wanted to save American face by offering some semblance of concession. As a result, it agreed to hold export control talks at the bureau chief level. South Korea also ceased its dispute settlement procedure with the World Trade Organization in response to the chance for dialog.

Conscious of domestic hardliners, the Abe administration insists that it has made no compromises. And in reality, it has only made the smallest of concessions.

Deepened Antagonism

INTERVIEWER  Could one say that the crisis has passed for the moment?

SATŌ  No, quite the opposite. The US-led solution has deepened the overall crisis of antagonism between the two neighbors. The sense that Japan used the United States to drive South Korea into a corner will intensify the latter’s animosity and cast a shadow over future bilateral relations.

Even so, I think President Moon jumped the gun when he acted as a go-between for President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. One might say Trump should have valued that earlier favor, as other US leaders would have done, and shown some support for Moon’s position in settling the GSOMIA issue. But the “master of the deal” is really cold-blooded.

INTERVIEWER  It’s almost incomprehensible that President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hardly showed their faces at negotiations after all that had happened.

SATŌ  That’s a very good point. It’s true that neither of these key actors made an appearance. Pompeo also failed to attend the Group of 20 meeting of foreign ministers in Nagoya and Trump did not make much use of his famous Twitter mouthpiece. US government diplomacy and security representatives worked fervently to keep GSOMIA alive. At the same time, one can see that Trump and Pompeo were not so enthusiastic.

If a gap opens up between the US leadership and diplomatic officials over how to handle GSOMIA, we should prepare ourselves for the consequences on the Korean peninsula.

(Originally published in Japanese on November 25, 2019. Banner photo: US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, at center right, meets with South Korean Minister of Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo in Seoul on November 15, 2019. © Reuters/Aflo.)

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