|Presidential NSO second deputy chief Kim Hyon-chong Yonhap|
By Do Je-hae
Controversy is resurfacing over the possible termination of a military intelligence sharing agreement with Japan, ahead of the March 1 Independence Day and the April 15 general election.
Speculation is mounting that the government could ultimately terminate the General Security of Information Sharing Agreement (GSOMIA), given the absence of any significant outcome from bilateral negotiations to remove Japan's trade restrictions imposed on certain Korean companies last summer. In response to the restrictions, the government announced the termination of the agreement, but held off on this in November to show its commitment to bilateral negotiations to settle the trade dispute.
Although talks have continued since then, the two sides are still far from a resolution. The negotiations may reach a breakthrough when a related issue is resolved: The Supreme Court of Korea's 2018 ruling that ordered Japanese companies to compensate Korean victims of wartime forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea. Japan's trade restrictions came in retaliation to the ruling.
The forced labor issue remains unresolved. The Japanese daily Yomiuiri Shimbun has been recently running a series of articles criticizing President Moon Jae-in's "victim-oriented" stance on the issue stemming from his experience as a human rights lawyer. Despite a rare Korea-Japan summit in December 2019, Tokyo maintains the firm position that Seoul violated their 1965 bilateral treaty via the Supreme Court ruling.
Korean presidents have traditionally referenced Korea-Japan relations during a speech given to mark the March 1 Independence Movement that began while Korea was under colonial rule. With the date fast approaching, attention is on what kind of message Moon will impart regarding the neighboring country and whether he will announce any decision about the GSOMIA.
For now Cheong Wa Dae is being cautious, denying reports that some "hardline" officials at the presidential office were pushing to abandon it.
"We are discussing the issue with Japan. Negotiations are underway to achieve a result that is good for both sides," a senior presidential official told reporters, Tuesday.
However, senior government officials have been implying the possible termination of the GSOMIA while calling on Japan to make more efforts to settle the trade issue.
During a recent press conference, Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha said that Korea could still consider terminating the GSOMIA depending on what is deemed best for the "national interest." "There have been talks between the export authorities, but we have still not returned to the situation before July 1 [when Japan imposed the exports ban]," Kang said.
On Wednesday the foreign ministry again urged Japan to lift the trade restrictions. "At the time [in November] the Korean government suspended ending the GSOMIA on the premise that it could do so whenever it deems it necessary" the ministry said in a release sent to reporters.
If Seoul decides to end the agreement, which was signed under a U.S. initiative by the Barack Obama administration, Korea-U.S. relations may suffer as a result. Washington has viewed the pact as a critical tool for trilateral cooperation on regional security and has consistently advised Korea against abandoning it. One of the reasons that Cheong Wa Dae reversed its earlier decision on the GSOMIA in November 2019 was because of opposition from the U.S.
But Cheong Wa Dae officials have said that the GSOMIA should be viewed separately from the Korea-U.S. alliance, which has raised concerns in the U.S. Kim Hyon-chong, second deputy chief of the presidential National Security Office (NSO), was reportedly at the forefront of the decision to abandon the pact. Defying criticism from within and outside Korea, he previously said that terminating the GSOMIA would ultimately "upgrade" the Korea-U.S. alliance.
"If we take the initiative and strengthen our security capabilities, it will also meet the U.S. desire for an increased security contribution, which in turn will lead to the strengthening of the Korea-U.S. alliance," Kim said in a press conference on Aug. 23, 2019, a day after Korea announced the decision to discontinue the pact. NSO chief Chung Eui-yong has reiterated that the GSOMIA has nothing to do with the Korea-U.S. alliance as it was an issue between Korea and Japan.
The main opposition Liberty Korea Party said the government and the ruling bloc are using the GSOMIA issue to gain popularity ahead of the general election.