Six Hours to Midnight: GSOMIA and the US Indo-Pacific Strategy
A recent telephone survey conducted on GSOMIA in South Korea included questions intended to gauge public sentiment toward the Moon Jae-in administration overall. Security policy, in fact has always been an important barometer for evaluating the degree of public approval of any South Korean administration. Seoul’s planned withdrawal from GSOMIA – reversed only at the proverbial last minute – was intricately intertwined with domestic politics, in particular the division between the left and the right in South Korean politics.
Recent mass protests in Seoul underscore the different stances of the two political sides, yet the controversy over GSOMIA also has important implications for the ROK-US alliance. The current presidential administration in South Korea has left the impression that it is willing to take up positions on national security that different significantly from the US. In this article, senior editor Anthony V. Rinna captures the lessons to be learned from the controversy over, and near-termination of, GSOMIA for the US and its alliance strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. – Yujin Lim, analyst
Six Hours to Midnight: GSOMIA and the US Indo-Pacific Strategy
by Anthony Rinna
A mere six hours before the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) intelligence-sharing pact between Japan and South Korea was set to end, the ROK made a reversal to its much-vaunted decision. Seoul’s opting to continue with GSOMIA however is contingent upon a thaw in Japan-South Korea relations, in particular as relates to Japan’s decision to remove the ROK from its most favored nation status in trade ties. The ROK’s course-reversal over leaving the intelligence-sharing pact came after much hand-wringing, both domestically and among the US’s senior defense policymakers.
During the 51st Security Consultative Meeting (SCM) between US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and South Korean Minister of National Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo, Seoul and Washington affirmed their desire to maintain collaboration on security issues of mutual interest and, in principle, the importance of continued cooperation with Japan. Yet despite the ROK defense ministry’s official recognition of the need for continued collaboration with Tokyo, Mark Esper’s exhortations to the ROK to reconsider its position on the intelligence agreement were reported to have gone unheeded even in the days prior to Seoul’s course reversal.
As South Korean academic Park Won-gon has indicated, the ROK and the United States differ in their views of Japan’s role in Northeast Asian security. For the US, Japan is an important partner in deterring North Korea. The ROK, however, though sharing Tokyo’s perception of a North Korean threat, nevertheless has a deeply-rooted historic mistrust of the Japanese state. According to Park, even in the face of pressure from Washington it would have been difficult for Seoul to suddenly reverse its position toward Tokyo. The decision not to follow through on the GSOMIA termination does not signal a complete shift in policy or even Seoul’s perceptions of security cooperation Japan, but is a temporary reprieve to allow diplomatic moves toward the normalization of Japan-South Korea security cooperation.
The ROK-US alliance from a strategic view | Prior to Seoul’s decision to provide a conditional reprieve to GSOMIA, the decision to scrap its intelligence sharing arrangement with Japan was not without detractors among South Korean policymakers. Domestic political opposition to withdrawing from GSOMIA centered on concerns that the Moon administration’s decision would endanger South Korean security in the face of a continued threat from North Korea. Korea Liberty Party MP Kim Young-woo, who has held various positions in parliament related to defense and security, cited the DPRK’s repeated missile tests as a reason to maintain GSOMIA. Ha Tae-gyeong, a senior official in the center-right Bareunmirae (“Righteous Future”) Party called the decision not to continue participation in GSOMIA an act of anti-Americanism, and declared that it could signal the beginnings of American unwillingness to maintain its protective military presence in the ROK.
Moon Jae-in attempted to assuage the concerns of both South Korean opposition voices as well as the United States by declaring that the ROK remains open to multilateral cooperation to defense against the threat from North Korea. Moon even stated that he was willing to reconsider his decision as long as the Japanese government took steps to rectify ties with Seoul.
The aforementioned discrepancy to which Park Won-gon alluded applies not only to South Korea and the US’s differing perspectives on Japan’s role in security cooperation. Another aspect of the divergent views Seoul and Washington have displayed specifically related to GSOMIA is a disconnect in the Republic of Korea and the United States’ defense priorities on a regional (and sub-regional) level. In much the same way that geopolitical (and historic) realities inform the differing views Seoul and Washington hold on security cooperation with Japan, South Korea and the United States are also divided in the way they formulate their policies on based on the rise of Chinese power and influence in Northeast Asia.
For Washington, security multilateralism between itself, Japan and South Korea is not tailored exclusively to serve American security interests against the DPRK. The US has increasingly come to view its alliances with Japan and the ROK, and trilateral cooperation among the three states, as part of its wider “Indo-Pacific strategy“. One of the key aspects of the Indo-Pacific strategy, as articulated by the US Department of Defense, is the maintenance of a “free and open Pacific”, which in the view of the American foreign policy elite is under increasing threat from the People’s Republic of China.
A “free and open Pacific” extends well beyond the confines of Northeast Asia, a specific sub-region of Asia that Gilbert Rozman defines as consisting of China, Japan and South Korea at its core (North Korea, in Rozman’s view cannot be considered a true Northeast Asian state given its isolationist tendencies, although this conception of Northeast Asia does not negate the fact that the DPRK is a Northeast Asian state in the literal geographic sense). China, a veritable Northeast Asian state not simply due to geography but also because of its demonstrable influence in the sub-region, extends its geopolitical reach into other sub-regions of Asia by virtue of its status as both a continental and maritime power.
The US’s recognition of the interconnection between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and what Washington perceives to be the growing Chinese challenge therewith, led to an official application of the term “Indo-Pacific” in US policy discourse from 2018. The term “Indo-Pacific” encompasses the regions and sub-regions of the Eurasian landmass, including waterways, from the western flank of the Indian subcontinent to the western periphery of the Americas, and from the southern border of Russia to Antarctica.
Analysis of this broad swathe of the earth, however has not-infrequently employed erroneous conflation between specific sub-regions (such as Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia) and the Asian continent as a whole. The critical differences between sub-regions of the so-called Indo-Pacific have manifest themselves with negative reverberations for American strategy. The ROK’s willingness to scrap its intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, though not followed through, was based primarily on Seoul’s reading of the security environment in Northeast Asia. South Korea’s government has signaled that it is willing to reduce security cooperation with Japan even as the DPRK continues to endanger the ROK’s security. For the US, however GSOMIA’s termination has revealed a potential weak link in the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy as a whole.
Even If One of the Whales Is Your Friend | In the months and days before Seoul pulled back from the GSOMIA withdrawal, senior US officials openly expressed dismay at how South Korea’s reduced security cooperation with Japan would benefit the People’s Republic of China. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Affairs Randall Schriver raised this point at a presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in August. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Japan and Korea Marc Knapper echoed this position just before Seoul was due to withdraw from the pact.
Members of both South Korea’s diplomatic circles as well as the policy research community are well-aware that the termination of the agreement in particular has negative reverberations for the US’s strategic standoff with China. As frustrating as the ROK’s withdrawal from GSOMIA would have been for the US, Washington must understand that an alliance founded on deterring a conventional attack on the ROK by North Korea may not be suited to serve the’s US interest in positioning itself to contain the PRC.
Indeed, the implications of South Korea’s narrowly-avoided GSOMIA termination for Chinese interests underscore the discrepancy in how South Korea and the United States formulate their strategies toward Beijing. The ROK perceives a need to balance a continued security partnership with the US in the face of a looming threat from North Korea while still maintaining equitable relations with China. Furthermore, South Korea is conscientious of the fact that it will inevitably be caught up in the midst of the growing Sino-American competition – as such, one policy option available to Seoul is to use its unenviable geopolitical position to contribute to the maintenance of a regional balance between Beijing and Washington.
Although Seoul and Washington describe their alliance as “ironclad”, South Korea knows that it cannot remain completely in lockstep with the United States in opposition to Beijing. Seoul did not make its original decision to cancel participation in GSOMIA in the face of direct Chinese pressure. Nevertheless, the ROK is not likely in a hurry to take up or maintain an antagonistic position toward Beijing, even with the United States in its corner.
The Sum of the Strategy’s Parts | The continuation of a North Korean military threat to both South Korea and the United States will possibly provide a solid raison d’être for the maintenance of the alliance (excepting the White House’s unreasonable demands in the face of South Korea’s defense free-riding). Nevertheless, what observers can learn from the GSOMIA controversy is that there is a limit to how much Washington can employ even a long-established defense partnership to serve the interests of its wide-reaching Indo-Pacific strategy.
On-the-ground realities in Northeast Asia nearly led Seoul to implement a policy that would contradict the strategic interests of its most important ally. Even if, in the near future Japan and South Korea mend ties and the intelligence agreement’s temporary stay of cancellation is made more permanent, the episode over GSOMIA offers an important lesson for the United States. The US Indo-Pacific strategy, though centered on the People’s Republic of China, is and will continue to be tempered by various sub-regional environments along the Chinese periphery, beset by realities over which even Washington has relatively little control. Japan-South Korea security cooperation may live to see the light of a new day, but rather than triumphalism, this development should be greeted with a sober understanding of its mortality.
 Rozman, Gilbert. Northeast Asia’s Stunted Regionalism: Bilateral Distrust in the Shadow of Globalization. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
 cf. Choi, J.K. and Moon, C.I. “Understanding Northeast Asian regional dynamics: inventory checking and new discourses on power, interest, and identity.” International Relations of the Asia-Pacific, 10 (2), (2010): 343-372.
 Nam Chang-heui and Lee Won-woo. “한국의 동맹 넷워크 확대와 한중 관계 발전 병행 전략: 전략 과제 도출을 위한 시론” (The expansion of South Korea’s alliance network and the parallel strategy of developing China-ROK relations: a theory for deriving strategic tasks). 국제 관계 연구 제 16 권 제2호 (통일원 제31호) (2011): 5-36.