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Stop this game of chicken

Nov 18,2019
With only five days left before the expiration of the Korea-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) on Saturday, both Seoul and Tokyo would not budge an inch on their demands from each other. When U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper visited the Blue House on Friday to discuss the issue, President Moon Jae-in told him that Korea can hardly share military information with Japan, who imposed export restrictions on Korea as retaliation for the Supreme Court’s rulings for Japanese companies to compensate Koreans forced to work during World War II. In reaction, Japan reportedly told the United States that it would not back down on its exports bans.

If both sides do not ease up on their standoff, Gsomia will be terminated at 12 a.m. on Nov. 23. If that happens, Korea-Japan relations will deteriorate to its worst-ever level and the Korea-U.S. alliance also will be critically damaged. The costs of the ending of the military information pact will be immense. In a recent Voice of America survey of 20 U.S. experts on Korean Peninsula affairs, 19 insisted that South Korea cancel its decision to sever the Gsomia with Japan. Daniel Sneider, an associate director for research at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, called it a “self-destructive act.”

It is fortunate that both Seoul and Tokyo are trying to find a breakthrough behind the scenes. Following President Moon’s remarks that South Korea can demonstrate flexibility if Japan retracts its export restrictions, the Blue House said, “We still have five days left.” Japan also showed some optimistic signs. Following an easing of its restrictions on fluorinated polyimides and photoresist, Tokyo has lifted a ban on exports of hydrogen fluoride, albeit in a limited way. The three chemicals are essential components for the production of semiconductors and displays in Korea. Tokyo may have taken those conciliatory steps to prepare for a long legal battle at the World Trade Organization. And yet it can be understood as a positive sign in resolving the two countries’ conflict over Gsomia.

Both the Moon Jae-in administration and the Shinzo Abe government must do their best to extend Gsomia by Friday. If they need more time to settle the dispute, they can consider extending the military pact by several more months, because what they need is just to agree to an extension under specified conditions. If both sides continue this game of chicken without any compromise, it only hurts their security cooperation in Northeast Asia.

The role of Uncle Sam as a fair mediator is also very important. The State Department and Pentagon have kept pressure on Seoul while trying to embrace Tokyo in a one-sided manner. If Japan really adheres to its hard-line position thanks to U.S. backing, Korea also cannot help taking a stern position. Both Seoul and Tokyo must take a step back and reach a compromise. We hope the United States does its fare share in helping them strike a deal before it’s too late.