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Pitfalls of domestic politics

Sept 05,2019
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President Moon Jae-in is briefed on the results of the National Security Council’s discussions on whether to extend or scrap the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan in the Blue House on Aug. 22. []
Chae Byung-gun
The author is head of the international, diplomatic and security team at the JoongAng Ilbo.

At the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington last month, Randall Schriver, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said that Seoul’s decision to withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsmoia) with Japan “puts a place of prominence on domestic politics ahead of the security environment.”

He also said that the United States was “not forewarned” about the decision to pull out. The remarks were in stark contrast to South Korea’s, who insists the withdrawal is based on “serious changes” in security cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo and that the United States had been consulted closely on its final decision. Gone are the days of ironclad alliance.

The Moon Jae-in administration must resolve the diplomatic disputes entangled around the Gsomia within its remaining term. It shocked Japan by standing up against the country’s export restrictions by pulling out of the bilateral intelligence-sharing pact. But the Moon administration must not hand over an avalanche of problems from that decision to the next administration. Many South Koreans think Seoul should not share sensitive military intelligence with a country that claims Seoul cannot be trusted. For a head of state in charge of national security and the economy, however, there are certain things that he must do. Former President Roh Moo-hyun decided to send troops to Iraq and sign a free trade agreement with the United States after taking the nation’s interest into account, not based on his personal preference.

The U.S. State Department and Defense Department are upset about Seoul pulling out of Gsomia in the face of North Korean missile threats. To defend against an incoming missile, countries must detect early signs of a launch and instantly predict its trajectory after lift-off — which boils down to a speedy reaction. Schriver said the United States does not want a “cumbersome, unwieldy process of information sharing” when looking at potential missile launches. Time is of “the essence” here, he said.

Basically, Gsomia is needed to deter the North Korean missile threat. That’s why the U.S. secretary of state and secretary of defense are urging Seoul to renew the information-sharing agreement with Japan. But it is sheer irony if the U.S. president says North Korea’s missiles are not a threat at all. Donald Trump repeatedly claimed Pyongyang’s short-range missile tests are not a threat and that they are “very standard” tests that other countries conduct as well.

Trump is playing down North Korea’s missile tests because he wants to win re-election next year. There’s no other explanation. Perhaps he wants to brag about Pyongyang’s suspension of long-range missile and nuclear tests on the campaign trail, claiming he stopped them, all the while letting the North off the hook with short-range missile tests. Trump went so far as to call the annual South Korea-U.S. combined military exercises “provocative” and “a total waste of money” — politically nuanced comments aimed at his supporters back home.

If the South-U.S. combined drills were actually provocative and just a waste of money, there would be no reason for U.S. forces to be stationed here. Why should we pay for some troops that do not train? What used to be demanded by South Korean liberals is now uttered by none other than the president of the United States.

If the Trump administration truly wishes to wipe out North Korean nukes and contribute to the building of a South-North economic community — and chooses to get chummy with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to achieve those goals — South Korean people would be willing to play along and pay more for the upkeep of U.S. troops here. But if the United States ignores North Korean nuclear threats as long as they do not affect its own security — and pressures South Korea to pay more for protection — the South-U.S. alliance will break. The alliance must not be exploited for domestic political gains. That applies to both South Korea and the United States.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 4, Page 27