By Tsuneo Watanabe, senior fellow of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation (interviewer: Hironori Takechi)
South Korea’s abrogation of its general security of military intelligence agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan could have an adverse impact not only on Japan-ROK ties but also on the security framework in East Asia. To date, Japan, the United States, and South Korea have been able to address North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in concert because they shared intelligence on such matters. Although both Japan and South Korea have an alliance with the United States, they do not have one with each other, and the GSOMIA has filled this gap. If the agreement is scrapped, it will be hard for Japan and South Korea to share intelligence except by going through the United States. This will hinder the operation of the [trilateral] partnership. The abrogation plays into the hands of North Korea, which opposes the GSOMIA. There is also the risk that it may reduce [the trilateral partnership’s] deterrence in relation to China and Russia.
South Korea is the nation that has benefited the most from the GSOMIA because the agreement would be valuable in the event of a contingency on the Korean Peninsula. The abrogation is not good for the U.S.-ROK alliance, either. It is a different story, though, if it is assumed “no contingencies will arise.” Many in South Korea would oppose [joint] security if there were no chance of contingencies arising. It is one thing to cooperate with the United States, but it is more objectionable if it is with Japan. With memories of Japan’s colonial rule in their minds, some are concerned that joining hands with Japan would mean that the Self-Defense Forces would use that to invade the country. The trauma of Japan’s annexation of South Korea is huge, and some stir up that sentiment for political reasons.
The Moon government puts priority on reconciliation with North Korea. For the administration and its supporters, the U.S.-South Korea alliance and the GSOMIA have not been very important. The South Korean military must have been opposed [to scrapping the GSOMIA], but the Moon administration did not listen. U.S. President Donald Trump has not taken much interest in the matter either. Both President Moon Jae-in and President Trump want to make friends with North Korea. President Moon likely thought that his relationship with his U.S. counterpart would not suffer if South Korea scrapped the GSOMIA.
The Moon administration cited Japan’s restriction of exports to South Korea as the reason for the abrogation. Japan had explained that the restriction was a security measure, but this ended up giving South Korea the ammunition to say that “Japan is not a country we can trust in security matters.” The fact that the Japanese government was not able to anticipate such a reaction from South Korea proves its inability to think strategically. The export restrictions were shortsighted. Those unfamiliar with the country of South Korea and President Moon must have decided that policy.
It is regrettable that South Korea scrapped the agreement, but it is not fatal. What the Japanese government should do is engage in “benign neglect,” or in other words, “do nothing.” With its populist nature, the Moon administration is not thinking about South Korea’s long-term national interests or security. Public support for the Moon administration is low, and President Moon is simply playing up to certain supporters by taking an anti-Japan stance. It should not be assumed that South Korea is anti-Japan overall. If Japan takes countermeasures going forward, it will end up giving the Moon administration the tool of “anti-Japan” to buoy itself up with. In other words, it will end up giving extra longevity to an administration it would like to see replaced. In the international community, one must sometimes associate with those who act illogically.
The cooling of Japan-ROK relations is already having an impact on the tourism industry and industries that export to the ROK. If Japan’s further escalating its response would have the effect of forcing South Korea to compromise on the former requisitioned workers issue, it might be worth doing, but such an outcome is unlikely. President Moon will be replaced at some point. Therefore, it is important that Japan be completely cool-headed in its handling [of current issues] in preparation for the changeover in the South Korean administration in the future. In this way, Japan can have those South Koreans who consider “the current [Moon] administration to be inappropriate” think that “Japan is taking a very cool-headed approach.”
For the sake of security over the long term and in order not to drive South Korea to the North Korean side any more than it already is, Japan should consider making “doing nothing” its policy.