U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday that he was disappointed to see the Moon Jae-in administration’s decision to terminate the General Security of Military Information Sharing (GSOMIA). In less than a day after South Korea released its decision, the State Department and the Pentagon issued statements to express “strong concern” and “disappointment.” The Department of Defense even revised an earlier version of its statement, which had called on South Korea and Japan to work together to resolve their differences. It is unprecedented that the two U.S. departments have publicly criticized an ally’s decision in such strong words.
South Korea’s presidential office previously said that the United States expressed its understanding of Seoul’s decision, but Washington immediately denied the claim on Friday. It remains unknown how the two countries communicated through which channels, but the discrepancy signals lack of communication and understanding between the allies. Seoul should thoroughly investigate the rationale behind its announcement about Washington’s understanding and whether the Moon administration gave unilateral notice to the U.S. administration or arbitrarily interpreted Washington’s stance.
Granted, the Moon administration may have decided to scrap the military information sharing deal to raise the country’s bargaining power in response to Japan’s export curbs. The parties of the agreement should notify of their decision 90 days prior to the expiration, so even though the deadline is Sunday, it will be actually on Nov. 22 when the accord expires. Since there is no explicit rule regarding a reversal of the parties’ intent to abandon the deal ahead of the termination, Seoul’s decision could be able to be withdrawn depending on the two countries’ interpretation of the pact.
The bilateral agreement between South Korea and Japan has played an important role in trilateral security cooperation between the United States and its two Asian allies. This is why Washington has repeatedly called on Seoul to keep the agreement in place. An unresolved wide gap between South Korea and the United States on the GSOMIA issue may have a negative impact on the two countries’ alliance. Though the military authorities said that the existing Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement (TISA) could help prevent an information vacuum, the claim is hardly convincing now that South Korea has practically declared the discontinuation of information sharing with Japan. Moreover, experts say that the TISA would not be able to replace the GSOMIA as it is not legally binding and does not enable direct communication between South Korea and Japan. Therefore, concerns could arise over an information vacuum, which could be created if South Korea cannot obtain intelligence assets through Japan’s reconnaissance satellites.
South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs conveyed an official letter Friday to notify Japan of its decision to abandon the intelligence sharing agreement. As of now, Tokyo seems likely to enforce its measure to drop South Korea from its export control “white list” on Wednesday. The two countries need to avoid extreme confrontation. To do so, the South Korean government should make diplomatic efforts to minimize a possible negative impact on its alliance with the United States and to prevent a complete collapse of its bilateral relationship with Japan.