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[Editorial] Don’t be rash

Prudence warranted; wrong move on military intel-sharing could worsen security situation

Controversy has flared up over whether South Korea should discontinue military intelligence-sharing with Japan in response to the latter’s decision to exclude it from the whitelist of favored trading partners.

During a meeting with her Japanese and US counterparts last week, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said she intended to reconsider the bilateral deal, called the General Security of Military Information Agreement. Cheong Wa Dae has made no secret that it views termination of the deal as an option to retaliate against Tokyo. Lee Hae-chan, leader of the ruling Democratic Party, recently said he supported its discontinuation.

But two opposition parties -- the Liberty Korea Party and the Bareunmirae Party -- have taken a different position, saying that even if Tokyo has done wrong, the agreement must be renewed in consideration of the South Korea-US alliance and trilateral security cooperation with Japan and the US.

Vincent Brooks, former commander of US Forces Korea, and retired Adm. Dennis Blair, former US director of national intelligence, argued for the continuation of the agreement at a forum hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Friday.

Led by the US, South Korea and Japan signed the GSOMIA in 2016 to share information on North Korea’s military movements, including its missile and nuclear programs. It is automatically renewed each year unless either party decides to terminate it with 90 days’ notice. The deadline to give notice is Aug. 24.

On Friday, when Japan announced it would drop South Korea from the whitelist, North Korea launched what were presumably ballistic missiles into the East Sea. It was the North’s third missile launch in about a week, after it test-fired missiles July 25.

The South Korean military regarded the projectiles launched July 31 and Aug. 2 as short-range ballistic missiles, but Pyongyang said it had tested a new type of multiple-launch guided rocket system. The North disclosed photos and test data as if to ask, “Don’t you even know this?” It is questionable whether the South is capable of precisely tracking and assessing North Korea’s projectile launches. On two previous occasions, the South Korean military had to recalculate the flight distances of the short-range missiles fired July 25.

Chinese and Russian strategic bombers entered South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone without prior notice July 23. A Russian early warning and control aircraft further trespassed into the airspace twice.

To end the deal under these circumstances is like shutting oneself off from the outside world when external information is most needed. The GSOMIA is an important form of security cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington. When it comes to surveillance, it is more effective to watch one’s enemies with others than to do it alone.

The agreement is also in line with the US strategy to contain China through cooperation with South Korea and Japan. In this light, the deal is important to the US as well as South Korea. Paradoxically speaking, this means that if the South terminates it, security ties between Seoul and Washington may be undermined. Opinions among US officials may then turn negative toward the South over its trade spat with Japan.

If the deal is scrapped, the South has the most to lose as it is under direct threat from the North. Different information assets possessed by Seoul, Washington and Tokyo can be used to monitor Pyongyang’s missile launches and other provocations. But a swift exchange of information can be difficult. If the accord ends and cooperation is broken off, it will be harder to detect North Korean provocations as precisely. This is why Pyongyang has urged Seoul to discard the deal.

If the South cuts off military information exchanges with Japan, South Koreans may feel emotionally vindicated. But if a serious crisis should come to pass, it may be hard to respond effectively. The Moon government needs to consider the consequences of terminating the accord. The question is whether it can carry out effective countermeasures without worsening the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. Prudence is warranted when it comes to security.