South Korea's choice to break up a mutual military intelligence pact with Japan is worrisome for multiple reasons. The move could provoke Tokyo, which has lately slightly softened toward Seoul, and shake up the traditional tripartite security alliance among South Korea, Japan and the United States.
In a National Security Council meeting, Seoul concluded that upholding the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) could no longer meet national interests when there had been "grave changes" in security cooperation between the two countries after Japan removed Korea from a so-called white list of trusted trade partners, said Kim Yu-geon, first deputy director of the presidential National Security Office in a press briefing. The reasoning that countries that have lost trust in one another cannot expect to share sensitive military intelligence is not entirely wrong. Still, the move cannot be wise for national strategy.
The pact with Japan has been helpful on the security front. The two governments shared information over 29 times since the pact went into effect in 2016. Tokyo handed over satellite images of movements in North Korea while Seoul shared the information it received from spies and others. Even at times of strained relations since the first Supreme Court ruling ordering a Japanese company to pay individuals wartime reparations in October last year, the two countries shared military intelligence seven times. Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo in a parliamentary hearing on Aug. 21 admitted to the "strategic value" of Gsomia. What the country can gain from sacrificing the important security pact is unclear.
Tensions are bound to re-escalate. The freeze showed slight signs of thawing after President Moon Jae-in in an Aug. 15 Liberation Day address gave a reconciliatory overture. Tokyo has since granted permission for a shipment of chemicals under export curbs to a South Korean entity and pledged commitment to the military intelligence pact. Yoshihide Suga, Japanese chief cabinet secretary, said it was important to "cooperate" with South Korea to suggest that the security relationship should not be affected by an ongoing row. Seoul's breakup could splash cold water on any kind of recovery in the bilateral relationship. Does Seoul want to stay on hostile terms with Tokyo forever?
Moreover, Seoul walking out of the military pact can seriously impair our tripartite security alliance and also our relationship with Washington. The U.S government repeatedly said it wanted Gsomia to stay. U.S. President Donald Trump made it clear that the United States wished to see its two closest Asian allies stay amicable, especially on security grounds.
Washington has been displeased about Seoul's lack of enthusiasm about its so-called Indo-Pacific strategy. It could think Seoul is going solo on security affairs by walking out of the military pact with Tokyo. If it cannot retract its decision to nullify Gsomia, it must at least come up with fast actions to restore the confidence of Washington and Tokyo.
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