ON AUG. 22, 2019, the Moon Jae-in administration has announced its decision to discontinue the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), abolishing the bilateral military agreement between South Korea and Japan that initiated in 2016. As the government explained its justification of termination to be based on the presence of general mistrust of Japan as a result of recent tensions and diplomatic hostilities, GSOMIA serves as a turning point in the recently revised South Korea-Japan relations. The decision signifies a change not only with diplomacy of the two nations, but in the defense policies of the East Asian Pacific as a whole. Amidst concerns and disputed opinions on the validity behind the Moon administration’s decision, there are a few questions to tackle first to gain a clear view into the eye of the storm: What is GSOMIA, how and why did it come about, and what are some of the possible repercussions that lie ahead of the end of the agreement?
The basics of GSOMIA
GSOMIA is the first official military agreement signed between South Korea and Japan. The key nature of GSOMIA involves mutual sharing of information on areas that pertain to the security and interests of both nations, such as military reports on North Korea, social trends within both nations, and possession of nuclear weaponry. While it is a common misconception that the purpose of GSOMIA solely involves information pertaining to that of North Korea, its functions are not limited to such. The GSOMIA agreement is essentially a bilateral agreement through which both countries share military intelligence of designated confidentialities—South Korea shares second and third-grade secrets, and Japan discloses up to special confidentiality (Tokutei Himitsu*). In essence, GSOMIA can be understood as a military information protection agreement, in contrast to the conventional caliber of military information exchange agreement. Rather than stipulating the types and quantity of military information shared between South Korea and Japan, the agreement regulates the necessary pledges that should be ratified when sharing the information. While military confidentialities are shared between nations through a case-by-case basis on conventional occasions, GSOMIA has served as a preemptive medium of communication. When exchanging information on urgent domestic and bilateral agendas, it has enabled both South Korea and Japan to bypass the impractical authorizations and ratifications by easing the process of communication.
With such initial purposes, the GSOMIA agreement includes several features that differentiate itself from the rest of South Korea’s military agreements. For start, GSOMIA is not a treaty but should be understood as an international agreement, which mandates a discontinuation of the agreement in the absence of mutual consent from both countries. Furthermore, unlike conventional military agreements that span over 5 years in general, GSOMIA is classified as a short-term agreement with a 1-year timespan; either of the countries can opt to discontinue as long as the decision is made 90 days prior to the date of the agreement’s annual renewal. Under the condition that no government expresses clear will for discontinuation, the agreement’s timespan will be automatically extended for another year. GSOMIA is also notable in its nature of bypassing the requirement for approval from the National Assembly in South Korea. In other words, the decision pertaining to the agreement solely depends on the decision of the administration assuming the office, without undergoing additional procedures.
Signed and put into effect as of Nov. 23, 2016, GSOMIA was created following a series of North Korea’s security threats. Though the discourse for the agreement’s implementation began as early as 2011, it was being postponed due to a controversy from lack of specific discussion with the National Assembly. However, the North Korean nuclear experiments in 2016 convinced the administration of the need to quickly evaluate the situation and take imminent preemptive measures. The process was facilitated through the support of South Korea and Japan’s military allies, such as the United States through a three-way summit in April 2016**.
One of the benefits South Korea receives from GSOMIA lies on the usage of military infrastructure as a result of the prompt military information exchange. In particular, GSOMIA complemented the South Korean military’s relatively weaker capacity in the area of military intelligence such as early detections via radars and satellites. The agreement enabled South Korea to gain necessary information in times of abrupt military threats through assistance from Japan. For the purpose of detecting North Korea’s nuclear weaponry and missile capabilities, Japan’s military infrastructure owns, such as but not limited to, 8 military-grade satellites, 6 Aegis destroyers*** equipped with detection radars, and 4 ground radars. These undoubtedly show that Japan has a clear upper hand over the capabilities of the South Korean military which has yet to possess Nuclear Detonation Detection Satellites and owns only four Aegis destroyers.
The Moon administration’s decision to discontinue GSOMIA had faced immediate controversy after its announcement. Survey of South Korean public opinion conducted on Aug. 26, 2019 displays that an approximately 54.9% had responded that they support GSOMIA’s discontinuation while 38.4% responded with criticism****. Over the course of the economic sanction issue, the Japanese government decided to exclude South Korea from its White List under the justification of South Korea violating transnational security. As of August 22, the Blue House released an official statement that the exchange of sensitive military information is not the best decision in terms of national interest. The recent trade issues incurred a dramatic change for military relations between the two nations, as the matter of international security was brought to the table. If this decision for discontinuation is not retracted by the government in the near future, GSOMIA is currently scheduled to be terminated on Nov. 22, 2019.
The Japanese media and government also displayed a widespread reaction of unexpectedness when the decision for discontinuation was announced, with both right-wing and left-wing political groups unanimously agreeing that the discontinuation would damage international cooperation. Regardless of political tendencies, Japanese media such as Asahi Newspaper and Sankei Newspaper covered the issue in a similar standpoint. Numerous diplomacy professionals from the United States and other allied nations also expressed concerns that the situation would be most beneficial to North Korea’s Kim Regime considering the role of GSOMIA for Northeast Asian security.
With a means to introduce swift military cooperation between the two nations being discontinued, there are substantial possible implications with GSOMIA’s termination. In the past four years of the agreement’s history, South Korea and Japan have each exchanged 24 cases of military information, ultimately adding up to 48 occasions in total. Despite the details of information being strictly confidential in its contents by principle and not statistically measurable in its specific benefits, the practical significance of GSOMIA can be assessed through the methods it is utilized between the governments. South Korea has been exchanging information regarding North Korean defectors and geographical adjacency with the Japanese lease of military detection methods. In other words, relevant and timely information regarding North Korean society cannot be shared anymore with the Japanese government. With GSOMIA’s significance not only affiliated with military details but with societal trends within North Korea, policy management and diplomacy from both nations is expected to suffer lethargy.
How to understand the decision
The process of GSOMIA’s discontinuation is primarily assessed within the context of recent South Korea-Japan relations and the White List issue that negatively contributed to it. After the 2019 South Korean-Japanese economic sanctions issue, anti-Japan boycotts, and the mutual exclusion from their trade white lists, there have been ample concern regarding a lack of communication caused by mutual governmental distrust. According to Director Kim Dong-yub from Kyungnam University, Institute for Far Eastern Studies, the South Korean government’s decision has been made as a result of its “adherence to principle and consistency.” Director Kim, who is also a member of the Presidential Commission on Policy Planning under the Moon administration, elaborated that the essence of GSOMIA hinges on mutual trust. As the transfer of military confidentiality is a matter that might jeopardize domestic security by rule of thumb, international trust in a reciprocal manner should be a prerequisite. Since the South Korea-Japan dispute has been expanded throughout historical, economic, and political interests of both countries, the loss of minimum faith has incurred such shift in status quo within the military sphere. Kim provided a professional opinion that if the Blue House continues GSOMIA without interruption, it may send the wrong message that the agreement will continue despite the principle of mutual military trust. It may also convey the message to the Japanese government that South Korea is willing to arbitrarily compromise, despite the terms of agreement already discussed during the formation of GSOMIA.
Director Kim further says that GSOMIA is different in nature from a pure-intentioned exchange of military information. On the contrary, it is a subject closely affiliated to a hegemonic dispute surrounding the Korean peninsula. Within the paradigm of the U.S.-Chinese dispute, South Korean and Japanese militaries are primary modes for the United States to keep China’s military power in check. GSOMIA is part of the U.S. government’s policy to collaborate with its two alliances, South Korea and Japan, under a streamlined military cooperation. The Japanese Military Sexual Slavery Agreement and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) issues were strategies to achieve this agenda among many others. Following the announcement to discontinue GSOMIA, the U.S. government has continually been expressing disagreement to the decision. For instance, the U.S. Ambassador to Korea, Harry Harris, stated it would be “regrettable” if the capacity for information exchange between South Korea and Japan suffered damages due to the discontinuation*****. As a result, additional concerns exist whether the U.S.-Korean military cooperation will expand to issues such as defense fund sharing and weapon purchase funds.
In spite of several concerns regarding the termination of GSOMIA, Professor Kim says that the decision should not be viewed from the extreme ends of the spectrum. Even though there is a plethora of media attention surrounding it, the agreement is merely a template for efficient transfer of information. Similar agreements are made with other allied governments such as that of the United States, out of an analogous necessity. In other words, even though GSOMIA is ultimately discontinued as of November, 2019, there still exists modes for military information exchanges for a case-by-case basis, albeit less efficient than when the agreement was still present. Regardless of the discontinuation of GSOMIA, there are still remaining agreements and additional modes for future military cooperation. South Korea and Japan have made a total of 32 other military agreements, although not as specific as GSOMIA.
* * *
Above all, the essence of GSOMIA’s discontinuation is that the paradigm of military cooperation will alter due to the practical interests of both South Korean and Japanese governments. The story of the two nations has reached a point in which mutual trust has been revoked, and the discontinuation of GSOMIA is certainly one of the ripple effects incurred by that grim reality. Furthermore, the societal implications on both nations as well as their allies are still vague to the common eye. However, the South Korean government’s decision was to adhere to its national principles previously set, according to the belief that it was the choice that best reflected national security. Above all, the measures to deal with the changing climate of military diplomacy is the main agenda that will set the future for Korea’s national defense.
*National Intelligence Law Center
***Aegis destroyer: A destroyer battleship equipped with American Aegis-class naval weapons system