On November 22, the Government of the Republic of Korea (RK) decided to suspend its withdrawal from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. In August, Seoul announced its refusal to extend the agreement with Japan and on November 23 it would have become invalid if the South Korean leaders had not overturned their previous decision at the last minute.
Tokyo and Seoul signed the ill-fated agreement in November 2016, still under the previous President, Park Geun-hye. It allows South Korea and Japan to exchange military intelligence information. The agreement is believed to be primarily designed for exchanging information on threats from North Korea. However, the text is general and doesn’t mention the name DPRK. In theory, this makes it possible to use it for intelligence cooperation against any third country like China or Russia.
Japan and South Korea signed this agreement under strong pressure from Washington that considers it a major step towards creating a trilateral military-political alliance between the US, Japan and South Korea. A mini-NATO in northeastern Asia is a long-term dream of Washington strategists but implementation has invariably been obstructed by difficult bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo. Regular disputes and scandals between the two junior US allies prevent the creation of a strong military-political link between them. This situation worsened when the current Moon Jae-in administration came to power. This administration’s anti-Japan feelings are much stronger than those of previous administrations. The growth in anti-Japanese attitudes in South Korea was reflected, among other things, in a series of court decisions in 2018, that allowed seizing the property of Japanese companies that used Korean bound labor when Korea was part of the Japanese Empire.
Last summer Tokyo reciprocated by restricting exports of important high technology materials for the electronics industry to South Korea. Since the 1960s, South Korean industry has been closely integrated with the Japanese economy and has become strongly dependent on it technologically. Tokyo’s export restrictions caused a shock in Korea and were largely perceived as a treacherous move. In response, Seoul announced the decision to withdraw from GSOMIA.
Judging by these actions, South Korean leaders hoped that, given the United States’ interest in preserving military-political cooperation between South Korea and Japan, the US would pressure Tokyo to lift export restrictions. But this hope was ungrounded. Washington expressed its extreme discontent with the prospect of terminating GSOMIA but made it clear that it considered Seoul rather than Tokyo to be the main antagonist in the conflict. As a result, it pressured South Korea rather than Japan. Seoul had to give in and say the agreement would be preserved, but it reserved for itself the right to sever it at any time. However, Japan failed to cancel its export sanctions, which allowed Shinzo Abe to announce a “full victory.”
It is hard to predict further developments. Although the countries declare a willingness to hold talks, and Moon Jae-in and Shinzo Abe are expected to meet on the sidelines of a trilateral summit between China, South Korea and Japan in Chengdu, China, there is no guarantee that a compromise will be found.
Another scandal is unfolding almost simultaneously with the GSOMIA brawl. The Trump administration is demanding that Seoul increase its spending on support, by almost five times, for the US military contingent deployed in South Korea under the US-South Korea military alliance treaty. Today, Seoul is paying Washington about $1 billion, but the White House wants to increase this to $5 billion overnight. This exorbitant demand shocked the South Koreans. They are bluntly refusing to pay it.
It could be that Seoul and Tokyo, as well as Seoul and Washington will find compromise solutions in the next few months but in any event current developments make one ponder the long-term prospects for South Korea’s cooperation with the United States and Japan. Doubts in the durability of these ties are partly caused by the arrogant and nationalist position of Tokyo that refuses to acknowledge the crimes of imperial Japan regarding the Koreans as well as the greediness of the Trump administration that seems to be close to extorting money from its junior ally.
But there is also another, a more important reason: preservation of the alliance with the United States, not to mention membership in the military-political bloc with Washington and Tokyo is becoming less consonant with South Korea’s national interests. The US-South Korean alliance based on the 1951 treaty was initially aimed at repelling the threat of North Korea against the South. However, now only those with a rich imagination suggest that the DPRK could repeat the 1950 scenario in a bid to seize the South. Even if we assume that the North could achieve, by a miracle, a military victory over the South, how would it control its southern neighbor with a territory twice as large and a much more advanced economy? This is not to mention that the hypothetical annexation of the South could create completely unpredictable effects for the stability of the North Korean political regime.
Today, Washington and Tokyo increasingly suggest that military-political cooperation with South Korea is necessary to deter China. This puts Seoul in a bind. As distinct from a number of China’s other neighbors – Japan, India, Vietnam or the Philippines, South Korea is not involved in any serious disputes with China. Meanwhile, the prospects of being on the frontline in a mounting US confrontation with China will create a host of risks for Seoul, especially considering its trade dependence on its giant neighbor. South Korea already experienced China’s anger after it agreed to host the US THAAD anti-missile system on its territory. On that occasion, Beijing used just few of the economic pressure tools at its disposal.
One more reason for Seoul not to anger China lies in the realization that a unification of the two Koreas is practically impossible without China’s consent. Beijing will not allow this to happen if South Korea remains a US ally because there would be a serious risk that the entire Korean Peninsula would become part of the US sphere of influence. Incidentally, Russia holds a similar position. It would hardly accept a united Korea with a capital in Seoul if South Korea remains a close US ally.
In the course of mounting confrontation between the United States and China, South Korea will have to make a choice: either strengthen its ties with the US-Japan coalition and take part in deterring China or gradually distance itself from Washington and Tokyo and drift towards de facto neutrality. A third theoretically possible option would be to become Beijing’s junior ally and client, but the South Koreans are unlikely to consider this.
I will dare assume that despite the rhetoric about the inviolacy of its alliance with the US, the Moon Jae-in administration is leaning towards neutrality. Many politicians in Washington suspect that Moon and his political supporters are not that loyal to the United States. Their apprehensions are likely to be grounded. The left progressive nationalist camp to which Moon belongs sees South Korea as a fully sovereign and independent state in the future rather that Washington’s junior and dependent ally. This is reflected in the accelerated growth of military spending under Moon, which is justified, among other things,by the need to reach “self-determination.”
However, powerful special interest groups with pro-American orientation, especially among the military, diplomats and expert and academic circles have emerged in South Korea during its almost 70 year alliance with the US. There is also the problem of a forced psychological dependence on an alliance with the United States: several generations of South Koreans have been taught that the security be reliably ensured only by American forces.
Therefore, the movement towards neutrality is likely to be cautious and gradual. South Korea may well follow in the footsteps of Thailand, which maintains close and friendly relations with Beijing despite its strictly formal alliance with the United States. At the same time, Seoul will build up its military potential in the direction of greater autonomy and self-sufficiency. In addition, it is quite possible that the Republic of Korea will decide, similar to Japan, to acquire a “virtual nuclear power status”, which implies that the country does not have nuclear weapons, but has all the necessary components and technologies to become nuclear power in the shortest possible time.