On Wednesday, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Japan finally sealed a deal that has long been controversial: the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). While many military officials and defense experts, from a national security standpoint, have argued the necessity of enacting the bilateral security agreement, it is not clear why the two governments pushed forward such a thorny issue at this point. We believe it is in the interests of both Seoul and Tokyo to strike the intelligence-sharing deal, and that the initiative was primarily led by the incumbent Obama administration in the United States to consummate its “pivot to Asia” before the end of President Obama’s term.
Initially, the idea of the two countries sharing military intelligence was proposed by the ROK in the late 1980s. Seoul’s primary concern has been its lack of satellite intelligence. To be fair, the ROK military has acquired substantial capability in signal, imagery, and voice intelligence over the past several years. Still, its area of operation is restricted to the south of the military demarcation line (MDL), and it can only do so much in the absence of military satellites amid the recent advances in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. It is only natural that Seoul has developed a plan to introduce four synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites and one optic-infrared satellite by 2022. Until then, Seoul will fill the gap by borrowing reconnaissance satellites from other countries including Israel, France, and Italy.
In this respect, Seoul has every reason to cooperate with Tokyo. Japan’s Self-Defense Force (SDF) already operates four intelligence satellites to monitor the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. Japan is planning to increase the number of satellites up to 10 in the coming years. In addition, the SDF possesses world-class anti-submarine capabilities. This is especially important now that North Korea is developing its submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) program. Last but not least, South Korea’s grand strategy is predicated upon its alliance with the United States, which deems Japan as the cornerstone of its Asia policy. As a result, any sensible South Korean policymakers who care about national security would, whether they like it or not, pursue the GSOMIA.
In 2012, during the last days of Lee Myung-bak’s presidency, Japan and South Korea almost signed the agreement. Yet the Lee administration’s unilateral proceedings — which many deemed as a backroom deal — were met with a severe opposition at the National Assembly; even then prospective presidential candidate Park Geun-hye insisted that the deal be approved at the legislature. In addition, the country’s perennial anti-Japanese sentiment also stymied the process. As a consequence, the bilateral agreement went astray, and several key foreign policy officials at the time had to resign or be disciplined. Two years later, however, Park’s administration resumed the negotiations, and subsequently signed a memorandum of agreement (MOU) instead to share military intelligence with Japan.
There are several technical differences between the MOU and the GSOMIA. First, the former only covers nuclear weapons and missiles, while the latter applies to the entire universe of threats posed by North Korea. Second, the MOU was signed between vice ministers, not governments, of the two countries, and thus is not legally binding. Third, the memorandum stipulates that Korea and Japan would share military intelligence through the United States, instead of cooperating directly. It is not inconceivable that the officials in the Park administration were aware of these issues, but they proceeded with the MOU perhaps for fear of domestic backlash against the bilateral agreement.
It is noteworthy that a posthumous analysis by the Asan Institute suggests that the breakdown of GSOMIA was less about the Korean public’s antagonism toward Japan than its distrust of then-President Lee. For example, 60.4 percent of South Koreans across parties and age groups considered GSOMIA as necessary in September 2013, up from 44.3 percent in July 2012 in the immediate aftermath of Seoul’s repudiation of the deal. Having observed her predecessor’s unsuccessful attempt closely, President Park might have learned that passing GSOMIA requires much political capital and that public consensus is an imperative.
With this context in mind, one immediately comes up with one question: why pass GSOMIA now? There can be three possible explanations. First, from Seoul’s vantage point, now is an opportune moment to strike the deal as public attention is diverted away due to the recent political turmoil. With Park’s alleged involvement in a massive corruption scandal, South Korean politics has been thrown into a vortex — her approval rating has plummeted to single digits. Still, Park holds sway over foreign and defense policy, including the signing of GSOMIA. This situation paradoxically created a window of opportunity for her to pass the deal. GSOMIA will be a test of her presidency; by pushing it through she can signal her determination as the commander-in-chief, albeit in a limited sense. It is not surprising that Park was initially open to the idea of conceding to the opposition party by delegating domestic affairs to a new prime minister while maintaining her authority on foreign policy. But the question is whether her cabinet was shrewd enough to make such a decision amid political disaster.
Another possible explanation is Japan’s heightened security concern vis-a-vis North Korea. Now that Pyongyang has developed substantial capability in its missile and nuclear weapons programs, Tokyo’s nightmare is about to materialize. The problem is not whether the North Korean leadership will actually target Japanese territory — that is highly unlikely. What is problematic is that Pyongyang’s capacity to do so will prevent the SDF from lending support to its South Korean counterpart. In the case of a contingency, one could imagine that the ROK, Japan, and the United States will closely cooperate to deal with the situation. Yet a nuclear-armed North Korea can easily break the incomplete trilateral coordination by blackmailing Tokyo and Washington. After all, no politician has the stomach for a nuclear war.
To guard against such a possibility, Japan is compelled to strengthen its intelligence cooperation with South Korea. However, it is almost inconceivable that Japan has single-handedly taken initiative in matters concerning trilateral security cooperation. In fact, some analysts have already pointed out that Japan’s foreign policy behavior tends to be reactive. A more likely scenario is that Japan has been directed to pursue such cooperation by an external force: the United States.
Notwithstanding all the rhetoric, Obama’s “pivot to Asia” has been incomplete at best. Thus far, U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific has been predicated upon a network of alliances often characterized as the “hub-and-spokes” system. In the face of rising tensions in the region — from the increasingly aggressive China to the last survivor of the “axis of evil” — the success of “pivot” hinges on Washington’s ability to put together two of its most important “spokes”: South Korea and Japan. While American policymakers have been pushing forward this agenda for some time, Tokyo and Seoul failed to forge a modus vivendi with regard to the ever-needed trilateral security cooperation, owing in part to their unfortunate past. For this reason, some senior officials of the Obama administration have expressed frustration over the gridlock.
As his tenure is coming to a close, the president himself may have felt obligated to leave a lasting legacy in this geopolitical hotspot by aligning “spokes” around the “hub.” This strategic impulse comes at the right moment, when domestic situations in both South Korea and Japan are in favor of the GSOMIA. Now that the two countries have signed the agreement, Obama has put a final touch on his “pivot,” thereby laying the ground for further security cooperation in the region.
It remains to be seen whether this historic deal will eventually evolve into an equivalent of NATO or become a de facto dead letter with the passage of time. Given today’s unpredictable political environment all over the world, one can only speculate without much certainty. However, what is clear is that the GSOMIA will de jure enhance a closer coordination among the ROK, Japan, and the United States for now, and this is in the interest of all three countries involved. As it stands, one can only “hope for the best but plan for the worst.”
Jaehan Park is a Ph.D. student at the Johns Hopkins’ Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Prior to SAIS, Park served in the Republic of Korea Army as an officer.
Sangyoung Yun is a Masters graduate from Johns Hopkins SAIS and currently a research assistant at the US-Korea Institute at SAIS.