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Backpedaling on security

Aug 27,2019
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Why is the Moon Jae-in administration choosing the path of self-isolation? It has walked out of the mutual intelligence-sharing General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan and yet stands staunchly behind Cho Kuk, the justice minister nominee whose contradicting past threatens the identity — and slogans of fairness and justice — of the liberal administration. The administration has been dealing with crucial foreign and domestic affairs. As a result, it has lost the confidence of its allies and people. Its traditional supporters may be on its side for now. But in time, they also could turn their backs.

The breakup of Gsomia stunned the people. Regardless of all disputes with Japan, a military pact is necessary in the face of ever-strong missile and nuclear threats from North Korea and the military expansion of China. It is time for the traditional trio — South Korea, the United States and Japan — to form a joint front. North Korea has repeatedly test-fired its advanced short-range missiles and rockets apparently aimed at striking South Korea’s major facilities. Bombers from China and Russia continue to violate South Korean airspace. U.S. President Donald Trump and others in the White House, Japanese foreign minister, and security experts at home and abroad have persistently advised Seoul not to leverage security affairs to solve its trade row with Japan. The Moon administration should have renewed Gsomia — effective for one year — in August instead of scrapping it for reasons other than security.

The move came as a greater bafflement because President Moon indicated reconciliatory steps. He said, “We should not resort to emotions in coping with Japan’s economic retaliation [for our Supreme Court’s ruling for wartime forced labor].” In his Aug. 15 Liberation Day address, he went so far as to say, “We will be happy to take their hands if Japan takes the path of dialogue and cooperation.”

South Korea’s allies increasingly speculate that it is trying to wean off — or derail — the tripartite security system or Korea-U.S. alliance. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly expressed “disappointment” at the Moon administration’s decision to sever Gsomia. President Trump said, “We will see what happens.”
Many are concerned that South Korea is really trying to draw a new Acheson Line, in which South Korea was excluded in the U.S. defense line against the rise of communism in the 1950s.
Japan is superior in military intelligence gathering with seven satellites watching over North Korea. South Korea’s defense front could be shaky without Japanese assistance.
Defense Minster Jeong Kyeong-doo spoke of “strategic value” of the intelligence agreement. Who can understand South Korea’s move to walk out of Gsomia even when it holds similar pacts with Vietnam and Russia? The action is a “bizarre suicidal action unimaginable from a sane government responsible for national security,” lambasted Chun Young-woo, former national security adviser for conservative president Lee Myung-bak.

The initial fault lies with the Shinzo Abe administration of Japan. It unilaterally removed South Korea from the so-called white list of countries which receive preferential treatment in trade on incomprehensible “security” grounds. The government has a point in its argument that it cannot share military intelligence with a country that does not trust its ally. The U.S. is also partly accountable for sticking to the sidelines for all this time.

Still, Seoul went too far by severing the intelligence-sharing pact. It may have taken the action to retaliate, but lost its cause. The Abe administration which came under fire for its anti-free-trade action would augment its retaliation on South Korea by arguing Seoul has taken Beijing’s side. The fallout between Seoul and Tokyo would please Beijing and Pyongyang.

It is dangerous to go down the path of nationalism in the age of global cooperation. Korea could lose even its friendly forces in Japan, which is exactly what extreme rightists like Abe want to see.

The 1965 Basic Treaty between South Korea and Japan to normalize their diplomatic relations has not clearly defined the illegitimacy of Japanese colonial rule. That is the root cause of the exacerbated Seoul-Tokyo relations. The treaty was a byproduct of Washington’s pro-Tokyo policy. The United States contrived a vague concept called “soft peace” in 1943 to invite Japan back to the global community even after the Pearl Harbor attack two years before — and after its defeat in World War II. The U.S.-Japan ties go down that deep. South Korea can hardly retaliate against Japan just by cutting off the mutual pact.

The Supreme Court’s rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate Korean workers forced to labor during World War II are behind the worsened ties. Tokyo argues that all claims of South Korea, including individual damages during the colonial and wartime period, were included in its reparations in the form of loans and aid to Seoul in 1965. But the top court disagreed with the inter-government treaty. As a result, Tokyo has taken retaliatory steps against Seoul for failing to place the international law before domestic law on the affair.

One of the solutions could be the South Korean government paying the surviving victims first and Tokyo offering a genuine apology for its past doings. In that case, Tokyo would lose its grounds for economic retaliation and Seoul would have higher morality. Japan’s conscience and morality also would come under international watch.

Cho Kuk, the justice minister nominee, is not eligible to take the position of justice minister who should uphold the law, order and justice. If he refuses to step down, it would be challenging the people’s will. The Moon administration is stumbling all around — on security, defense, domestic issues and economic affairs, to name just a few. It must return to the path of saneness and reason before it is too late.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 26, Page 31