By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, Nov. 4 (Yonhap) -- The United States appears to be heaping pressure on South Korea to retract its decision to end a military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo amid North Korea's continued saber-rattling and specter of tighter security cooperation between China and Russia.
U.S. diplomats have openly voiced concerns over the looming termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), seen as a symbolic platform for Washington to expand its trilateral defense collaboration with the Asian allies.
In August, Seoul announced its decision to end GSOMIA in response to Tokyo's new export curbs seen as political retaliation for last year's Korean Supreme Court rulings against Japanese firms over wartime forced labor. It will expire on Nov. 23 unless Seoul reverses the decision.
In a recent interview with Japan's Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Marc Knapper, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan, urged Seoul and Tokyo to maintain GSOMIA despite their chilled ties.
"Nobody is happy with the situation. Actually not nobody -- there are people happy with the situation, but they happen to be in Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang," Knapper said in the interview.
The senior diplomat called GSOMIA an "important tool for coordinating trilaterally," especially in a crisis, while describing the existing trilateral information-sharing pact among the U.S., South Korea and Japan as a poor substitute for GSOMIA.
Joseph Young, charge d'affaires ad interim at the U.S. Embassy in Japan, also chimed in.
"We've been very straightforward with the (South) Korean government that the expiry of that agreement would have an impact on the U.S. security interest," he said in an interview with Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun published last week. "I think our focus right now is keeping that agreement in place."
During his visit to Japan last week, David Stilwell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, also encouraged Seoul to rethink its decision on GSOMIA, saying it is beneficial to both countries.
Stilwell is set to visit Seoul this week to apparently intensify Washington's push to salvage GSOMIA.
While expressing its intention to restore ties with Japan, Seoul maintains that it can retract its decision on the military pact only when Tokyo ends its export curbs, including its removal of South Korea from its "whitelist" of favored trade partners.
Seoul has argued that it should respect the top court's rulings that recognized victims' individual rights to seek reparations from Japanese firms for forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.
But Tokyo claims that all reparation issues stemming from the colonial occupation were settled under a 1965 pact aimed at normalizing bilateral relations.
At the center of America's concerns is the possibility that the deterioration of relations between its affluent Asian allies with well-equipped defense establishments could erode its regional alliance network vital to maintaining its preeminence amid China's assertiveness and Russia's military reemergence, analysts said.
"If South Korea refuses to return to GSOMIA by the expiry date this month, doubts could emerge that it is tilting to a middle point away from security cooperation with the U.S. and closer to China," said Nam Chang-hee, a professor of international politics at Inha University.
"GSOMIA may not be a critical platform for security collaboration, but the symbolism associated with it can hardly be disregarded as it could serve as a stepping stone for a higher level of defense cooperation for the future," he added.
Some observers argued that the U.S. may see South Korea's final decision on GSOMIA as a crucial gauge of Seoul's political will to firm up the trilateral security partnership with Washington and Tokyo.
Seoul's move away from the military pact came amid Washington's growing military tensions with Moscow and its strategic rivalry with Beijing, while rumors have emerged that China and Russia may seek a formal security alliance partnership.
Tensions in U.S.-China relations have been simmering as the two major powers seek to secure their regional leadership through their competing geopolitical strategies -- Washington's Indo-Pacific Strategy and Beijing's One Belt One Road initiative -- and engage in trade disputes.
Washington's ties with Moscow have also deteriorated as the U.S. withdrew in August from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a key Cold War-era arms control regime, on its claim that Russia has continued to violate the treaty.
Amid rough patches in the U.S.' ties with the two major powers, Washington has apparently sought to strengthen its well-cultivated network of traditional allies and partner countries that has been critical to maintaining what it calls the rules-based order that it has fostered since the end of World War II.
Some observers here voiced fears that Seoul's departure from GSOMIA could cause further friction with Washington at a time when the allies seek stronger cooperation in making progress in the efforts to denuclearize North Korea and foster a lasting peace on the peninsula.
The withdrawal could also add tensions as the South and the U.S. are engaged in another round of grueling negotiations over how to share the cost for the upkeep of the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea.
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