South Korea’s decision last week to suspend the planned termination of a military information-sharing accord with Japan has provided room for negotiations to settle a longstanding bilateral feud that has spread from history to the trade and security spheres.
In an announcement made just six hours before the pact was due to expire at midnight Friday, Seoul said it would put off the effectuation of its earlier notice of termination, as long as discussions are held on withdrawing Japan’s export curbs against Korea. Seoul also decided to temporarily halt the process of its World Trade Organization petition against Tokyo’s export restrictions.
In response, Tokyo agreed to resume working-level talks with Seoul on the export controls it imposed in July in apparent reprisal for a ruling by the top court here ordering Japanese firms to compensate Koreans forced to work for them during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula. Tokyo has argued all reparation issues with Korea were settled by a 1965 accord that normalized bilateral ties.
Seoul stressed the temporary nature of its suspension of its notice of termination, saying that notice could be “reactivated” anytime.
But its move marked a clear retreat from its previous stance that it would terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement unless Japan reversed the export curbs as well as its subsequent action of dropping Korea from its whitelist of preferred trading partners.
It is not guaranteed that Tokyo will agree to retract those restrictions at the upcoming talks, even if the forced labor issue remains unsettled.
Seoul seems to have been compelled to step back as a result of unprecedented pressure from the US to retain the accord with Tokyo.
US officials have made it clear that the termination of GSOMIA would undermine its security interests in the region. Washington regards the accord signed in 2016 under its auspices as a crucial tool of trilateral security cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo. The three-way security collaboration carries further strategic importance for US President Donald Trump’s administration as a key component of its Indo-Pacific strategy, designed to contain China’s rising power in the region.
The possible fallout from the decision to terminate the accord with Tokyo would have been too much for Seoul to withstand. It would have further toughened the stance of the Trump administration, which has already increased pressure on Korea on multiple fronts, including defense cost-sharing and trade.
It was unreasonable and unjustifiable for Tokyo to impose trade restrictions over historical wrangling.
In responding to Tokyo’s economic retaliation, however, Seoul made a mistake by putting a sensitive security matter at stake. President Moon Jae-in and his aides may have hoped that their decision not to extend the pact with Tokyo would prompt Washington to step in to help resolve the dispute between its key Asian allies. But the Trump administration has stayed largely out of the fray between Seoul and Tokyo, while having pressed Korea to retain the accord.
Given Washington’s stern stance, it would be difficult for Seoul to move again to terminate the accord even if Tokyo drags its feet on withdrawing its export curbs.
What is needed to put bilateral ties back on track is to fundamentally settle the forced labor issue.
Japan rejected a proposal by Korea in June to establish a joint compensation fund with contributions from companies in both countries. During his visit to Tokyo early this month, Korea’s parliamentary speaker, Moon Hee-sang, suggested that ordinary citizens in the two nations be invited to contribute to the envisioned fund. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave neither a positive response nor a negative one when a Japanese lawmaker conveyed the idea to him. This raises cautious hopes of a breakthrough.
If necessary, the Seoul government may need to consider playing a role in launching the proposed fund.
Foreign ministers from Korea and Japan agreed Saturday to coordinate efforts to set up a summit between Moon and Abe on the margins of their planned trilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Chengdu, China, late next month.
Progress in discussions on the forced labor issue would enable the first Moon-Abe summit in more than a year. Even without progress, the two leaders need to be active about sitting down with each other to create impetus for the restoration of cooperative ties between their countries.
When announcing its decision to put off the GSOMIA expiry, Seoul affirmed its two-track approach of seeking to bolster a forward-looking partnership while dealing separately with issues concerning history. It should do so, and learn a lesson from its miscalculated judgment.