The Republic of Korea (ROK) announced on Friday that it would conditionally suspend the expiration of its bilateral military intelligence sharing pact with Japan, formally known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). Although Seoul’s sudden decision is welcome, its unwillingness to commit permanently to GSOMIA without Japanese concessions raises questions about its long-term commitment to containing China and to the U.S.-led security order in Asia.
Seoul’s move was a result of Japan’s decision on November 21 to retract within a month its export control measures targeting South Korea. Japan originally imposed these export controls to protest the ROK Supreme Court’s ruling that Japanese companies must pay reparations to South Koreans for forced labor during World War II.
The ROK government, however, made clear that it could terminate GSOMIA at any time if the two sides fail to resolve their trade and reparations dispute. Scrapping the agreement would undercut Washington’s efforts to counter China by fostering trilateral security cooperation between itself, Seoul, and Tokyo.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has admitted that terminating GSOMIA would benefit China as well as North Korea, which share a strategic interest in undermining U.S. deterrence of attacks on South Korea or Japan. This weakening of deterrence ultimately allows Beijing more room to persuade the ROK leadership to accommodate Chinese interests.
Even before the GSOMIA controversy, two notable examples from November 2017 demonstrated Seoul’s softening position toward Beijing.
The first example was the “three No’s” agreement that brought an end to the economic retaliation campaign Beijing levied against South Korea following the latter’s deployment of the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Between 2016 and 2017, China imposed a boycott on South Korea’s retail and tourism industries, resulting in losses of up to $15.6 billion.
In exchange for Beijing relieving its economic pressure, Seoul made three concessions: South Korea would not deploy additional THAAD launchers, participate in a U.S.-led integrated regional missile defense system, or join a trilateral alliance with the United States and Japan.
The second example was Seoul’s decision not to participate in the United States and Japan’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy. FOIP envisions an open and rules-based maritime order connecting Asia and Africa to prevent instability and promote collective prosperity through free trade. Seoul’s opposition to this multilateral strategy stems from its concern that FOIP’s ulterior motive is to contain China’s military.
Most recently, there have been reports that Seoul and Beijing’s defense ministers agreed to create new communication hotlines to de-escalate potential crises such as undeclared intrusions into the ROK air defense identification zone.
While Washington is rightfully concerned about South Korea’s warming relations with China, Seoul’s gravitation toward Beijing is hardly surprising given that Washington did nothing to support South Korea in its 2016–2017 dispute with China over THAAD. To avoid a similar outcome, the Trump administration should consider more flexibility in ongoing burden-sharing talks with South Korea to ensure a fair and practical deal. More importantly, to allay ROK concerns regarding Chinese economic coercion, Washington should also reassure Seoul that the United States will punish China proportionately if Beijing again imposes boycotts or other coercive measures.
For example, the United States could consider punitive fines or sanctions against Chinese banks, companies, and individuals complicit in direct and unwarranted boycotts on South Korean firms and industries. As regional opponents such as North Korea and China continue to undermine Alliance interests, it is imperative that Washington and its allies remain united to deter common adversaries.
Mathew Ha is a research associate focused on North Korea at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Mat and CMPP, subscribe HERE. Follow Mat on Twitter @MatJunsuk. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.