Northeast Asia’s security environment seemed to have dodged a bullet when South Korea announced it would remain in the General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement (GSOMIA) on November 22. However, the rising tensions between South Korea and Japan this past summer have once again highlighted the underlying mistrust plaguing this difficult relationship and the sensitivity of alliances in the region. The GSOMIA rift eventually served as a bitter reminder of South Korea’s subordinate status in military defense affairs; something which has been a thorn in the country’s side for decades.
This past August, Seoul decided to suspend the extension of GSOMIA, sparking concern from the US side; the other partner in the security pact. The pact was set to expire after 90 days if no decision was taken on whether to extend its existence. The three month period saw a lot of back-and-forth accusations and disagreements between South Korea and Japan, but it was ultimately the US who was able to get the two East Asian countries to ‘agree’ and save GSOMIA.
Japan and South Korea signed the pact in 2016 to supplement the 2014 Trilateral Information-Sharing Arrangement in order to establish a direct channel for intelligence cooperation instead of first having to share it with the US and then asking them to pass the information on (as was the case before GSOMIA). From a Washington perspective, this strategy, sometimes referred to as the mini-NATO alliance, strengthens the US’ position in the East Asian region. Washington believes that this military-political cooperation with Tokyo and Seoul is necessary to deter China. As such, GSOMIA is a relatively new agreement between two East Asian middle powers that could help increase regional security and shift the balance of power more in the US’ favor.
A tense relationship
In order to better understand the source of tension between Japan and Korea, we first need to go back in time a little further. South Korea was under Japanese rule between 1910-1945. Till today, Koreans have not forgotten how so many Korean women, called “comfort women” during the occupation, were used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers. Many Korean males were also forced to work in poor conditions for various Japanese companies during the occupation and subsequent war. The Tokyo government, however, argues that the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations signed by both countries, through which Japan offered $800 million in reparations, solved this ‘problem’ long ago.
Many South Koreans don’t agree, though. For instance, diplomat and author Yoo Euy-sang, author of “Diplomatic Propriety & Our Interests With Japan”, told the South China Morning Post that the 1965 treaty did not solve all the problems of the Korean people’s colonial past and that the treaty actually took away citizens’ right to claim true compensation. The issue of comfort women has been a particularly controversial issue that continues to be the main source of animosity between both countries. In response, in 2015, Japan apologized and promised to pay one billion yen ($8.3 million), which the Seoul government demanded as reparations for the remaining victims.
But the victims weren’t having any of it. They argued that they had not been previously consulted on the agreement and refused to support the creation of the fund. Then, in 2018, the Supreme Court of South Korea ordered a Japanese firm (Mitsubishi Heavy Industries) to give compensation to Koreans who suffered under forced labor during the occupation. Japan refused to respond in kind and referred to the ruling as “regrettable” and “totally unacceptable”.
To make matters worse, in July of this year, Japan decided to tighten controls on exports to South Korea of several chemicals used in the production of advanced semiconductors and digital flat screens — pillars of the South Korean economy. Things further escalated in August, when Japan announced that it would cancel Seoul’s preferred trading partner status and further imposed export controls on South Korea’s electronics industry. With this harsh reaction from Japan, the Seoul government made its final move without delay and announced that it would withdraw from GSOMIA.
Tensions with Japan aren’t the only possible source of instability in the region, however. Confidence in the US-ROK alliance has been quite shaken as well. South Korea’s trust alliance with the United States dates back to 1951, when it was established to counter threats from North Korea and keep the peace on the peninsula. Relying on this ‘ironclad’ alliance, the Seoul government expected Washington to react to Japan’s export restrictions and take some kind of action to back up Seoul, but they were left disappointed. The Korean government definitely did not get the answer they wanted and were instead strongly pressured by the US to remain in the agreement. Washington openly expressed its dissatisfaction with Seoul’s decision to withdraw from GSOMIA and made it seem like the source of unrest among the parties originated from South Korea, not Japan. This incident thus clearly underscored South Korea’s subordinate position in military cooperation affairs.
A more autonomous Korea?
Compared to past presidents, Moon Jae-in has taken a much more aggressive stance vis-à-vis Japan. In particular, Moon’s hard policies and attitudes towards Japan have made relations with the United States difficult. Some politicians in Washington even suspect that the Moon administration is no longer ‘loyal’ to the United States. In fact, Moon’s left-wing nationalist camp envisions South Korea as a fully sovereign and independent state in the future rather than Washington’s young and dependent ally. The Trump administration’s request for a five-fold increase in South Korea’s expenditures to support the cost of stationing US troops in the country has further heightened tensions between both countries. So far, Seoul has refused to accept any increase in costs.
Moreover, several signs point to a more independent military policy by South Korea. It is set to increase its defense spending by seven percent, amounting to more than 50 trillion won for next year. Moreover, Moon has repeatedly been emphasizing the importance of having a strong defense, making a clear link between strong defense and self-determination. An upgrade in military equipment such as new generation submarines and surveillance satellites has also been announced. Moreover, according to the Midterm Defense Plan for 2020-2024, the administration’s budget for force improvement programs is 103.8 trillion won — an average annual increase of 10.3 percent. The possibility of South Korea moving towards an increasingly autonomous defense system, rather than its usual reliance on the US could potentially change the security landscape in East Asia and affect the balance of power in the entire region. It remains to be seen what the US response will be.
Multilateralism remains alive but not necessarily well
Nevertheless, South Korea’s decision to remain in GSOMIA, despite the continuing tensions with Japan, shows that this trilateral alliance is not broken. South Korea is aware of the need for alliances to reduce tensions, even if it wants to take part in the international arena as an independent actor. For example, even though Seoul had suspended its participation in GSOMIA, when North Korea launched missiles during that 90 day period, South Korea immediately shared this information with Japan and used the intelligence-sharing frameworks various times. Still, South Korea has stated that it can terminate GSOMIA “at any time” if it deems necessary, thus tying its fate to the outcome of future negotiations with Japan. For now, however, it seems that both Japan and South Korea see the benefits of maintaining their alliance stable and using it as a shield to protect themselves from regional threats.
Merve Altun via. The Peninsula Report