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Scrapping of Gsomia puts Seoul in tough spot

Aug 27,2019
Washington has been voicing displeasure over Seoul’s decision not to renew its bilateral intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo last week, and the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs is increasingly finding itself in a tough spot.

Seoul announced its withdrawal from the its General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Tokyo last Thursday following Japan’s removal of Korea from its so-called white list of preferred trading partners earlier this month.

The U.S. State Department and Pentagon immediately expressed disappointment over the decision, as Washington has encouraged the Gsomia between Seoul and Tokyo, seeing it as important for its vision of trilateral security cooperation in the region.

The Moon Jae-in administration said that it consulted with the United States often and adequately on the matter before withdrawing from the Gsomia, but concerns are increasing in Seoul over the repercussions from the withdrawal and the impact it may have on the status of the Korea-U.S. alliance.

A Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Sunday, “There is nothing in particular to say on the situation,” on concerns over the negative reaction from Washington.

“Ending the Gsomia was a decision reached in the context of relations between Korea and Japan and is unrelated to the Korea-U.S. alliance,” the spokesperson said, adding that the “Korea-U.S. combined readiness posture will be firmly maintained” for the security of the region and handling the North Korea nuclear issue.

However, Morgan Ortagus, spokesperson of the U.S. State Department, again tweeted Sunday, “We are deeply disappointed and concerned that the ROK’s government terminated the General Security of Military Information Agreement,” referring to the South’s acronym, Republic of Korea.

One source told the JoongAng Ilbo, “The Korea-U.S. relationship definitively appears to be heading toward an untraveled path.”

This source said that the state of the alliance may be at its toughest point since the Jimmy Carter administration’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Korea in the late 1970s, a plan which never came to fruition.

“It seems like the first large-scale negative variable appeared in the Korea-U.S. alliance since the controversy during the Carter administration over the withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea - a relationship which has generally been followed by positive factors,” said the source.

Another source said, “U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris has publicly referred to the Gsomia as symbolic of the Korea-U.S.-Japan cooperation, and is likely to have been angered on the notification [of the withdrawal] without prior notification.”

But the source added, “Nevertheless, the United States will have to seriously reflect on why the issue came to this point.”

Korea and Japan signed the Gsomia in November 2016, and the pact is renewed automatically every year unless either side provides an advance notice of 90 days. The Korean Ministry of National Defense said that Seoul and Tokyo shared military intelligence a total of 29 times since the Gsomia was first signed, and seven times this year over the North’s missile tests.

Underlying Japan’s measures restricting exports to Korea since the beginning of July are complicated historical issues stemming from Japanese colonial rule over the peninsula. Japan has been protesting Korea’s Supreme Court’s rulings ordering Japanese companies to individually compensate victims of forced laborers during World War II.

The Korean Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry say they are not behind the decision to terminate the bilateral Gsomia with Japan.

The Korean Defense Ministry is said to have informed the Blue House officially and behind the scenes of the necessity of the Gsomia.

The Foreign Ministry had been focused on the Korea-China-Japan foreign ministerial meeting in Beijing last Wednesday a day before the Blue House National Security Council (NSC) convened to reach a decision on the matter, thus Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha was not able to attend. On Wednesday Kang also held bilateral talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, the results of which were reported to the NSC. Ahead of Seoul’s decision Thursday, Japanese media had been reporting that the Gsomia would likely be maintained.

Cho on Friday summoned Japanese Ambassador to Seoul Yasumasa Nagamine to notify Tokyo of the Korean government’s intent to terminate the pact while stressing that it is important for diplomatic authorities to continue dialogue “to resolve the full range of issues regarding the ROK-Japan relations.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday while in Canada that he spoke with his “South Korean counterpart” Kang on the Gsomia decision, and said he was “disappointed” on the decision while urging the two countries “to continue to engage.”

The U.S. Department of Defense in a statement Thursday expressed “strong concern and disappointment that the Moon administration has withheld its renewal of the Republic of Korea’s General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan.” It is rare for Washington to call out a specific administration to express disappointment.

Some analysts point out that sometimes Seoul needs to show that it can also make such game-changing decisions.

However, U.S. expert Woo Jung-yeop, a research fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, said, “The Gsomia is not simply a Korea-Japan issue but a U.S.-led security cooperation system.”

Woo continued, “If Korea breaks away first, the United States may raise issues that it has closed eyes to in the past for the sake of managing the alliance. We have to be prepared for the worst-case situation including North Korea-related sanctions on South Korean companies without prior notice.”

BY SEO SEUNG-WOOK, LEE YU-JUNG AND SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]