SEOUL—President Donald Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, arrived here Tuesday with a daunting task: persuade South Korea’s dovish President Moon Jae-in not to abandon a vital intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan in his zeal for permanent peace with North Korea.
The fear among U.S. and South Korean military people is that the Moon government, in a fit of spiraling anti-Japanese spite about other issues, might forget any semblance of cooperation. The sole beneficiary, they say, will be North Korea, whose propaganda machine has eagerly denounced the Japanese, called on Moon to hurry up with measures for a “peace regime” and attacked plans for small-scale computer-driven U.S.-Korean military exercises next month.
As Bolton got off the plane at Osan Air Base, he tweeted that he was “looking forward to productive meetings with the leadership of our important ally.” But those honeyed words masked the urgency of what might seem mission impossible—salvaging what’s known as GSOMIA, the General Security of Information Agreement, signed in November 2016 after years of American prodding. The agreement is to be automatically renewed for another year on Aug. 24 unless one side or the other pulls out with 90 days’ notice—a deadline that’s long passed but might not be all that important if ardent foes of the deal persuaded Moon to call it a day.
Emotions have reached the boiling point as Seoul demands compensation for Koreans forced to work as slaves in Japanese factories or to serve as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers in the harshest days of World War II. Japan, refusing these demands, accuses the South Koreans of wanting to break historic agreements under which hundreds of millions of dollars already were transferred to previous regimes in Seoul.
When the Japanese this month imposed strict controls over the export to South Korea of three chemicals needed to produce semiconductors, which are essential to Seoul’s enormous electronics industry, the standoff reached the level of a serious security concern. The Japanese claimed some of these precious exports were getting into North Korea in violation of sanctions—a charge vigorously denied by Moon.
While Moon’s government was talking about bringing the case of the chemical exports to the World Trade Organization, an anonymous South Korean official promised “an objective look at the GSOMIA qualitatively and quantitatively,” according to Yonhap, the South Korean news agency. “All options,” he said ominously, were “open.”
An alarmed State Department called GSOMIA “an important tool in our shared efforts to maintain peace and security in the region and achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea,” according to the Voice of America.
Bolton has had one stroke of luck. If he is to talk the South Koreans into recognizing the need to cooperate on defense, some recent events certainly underscore the urgency. As he was packing to take off from Japan, South Korean warplanes were firing flares and warning shots at an intruding Russian bomber flying too near two small islands held by the South Koreans far out in the Sea of Japan, known to Koreans as the East Sea.
And, as if that weren’t enough, earlier in the day Seoul traced both Chinese and Russian planes intruding in the KADIZ, the acronym for Korea Air Defense Identification Zone. First the Chinese plane zoomed around the zone off the east coast for half an hour, then flew off, only to join two Russian bombers penetrating the zone for another 25 minutes. No one fired any shots—just questions as to what the Russians and Chinese were doing there and whether they were flying together by odd coincidence or deliberate planning.
Bolton arrives at a time when “this intelligence-sharing agreement is in danger,” said Kim Tae-woo, former head of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “He will say he is here to listen carefully, but he will also say we have to protect intelligence.”
That’s a message that comes amid growing concern that President Moon and his closest advisers and aides are far too obsessed with currying favor with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un to the exclusion of basic regional security.
Kim, in fact, has shown no signs of backing off from his nuclear program since his meeting with President Donald Trump on the North-South line at Panmunjom at the end of June. At the time, Trump said they agreed on talks between working-level officials.
Instead, North Korea has berated the U.S. for plans for scaled-down military exercises scheduled for next month, while firing off several short-range missiles and evidently going ahead with production of missiles, warheads, and other weaponry.
Most recently, Kim inspected a newly constructed submarine. The vessel, according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, was built under Kim’s “meticulous guidance and special attention” and would “perform its duty in the operational waters of the East Sea of Korea.” Its deployment, said KCNA, was “near at hand.”
Under the circumstances, South Korea’s standoff with the Japanese appears as a distraction from mounting economic and political problems. “This has got to be the worst relationship that I’ve seen in my years here,” said Steve Tharp, who has served for several decades here as a military officer and civilian specialist on North Korea.
Compromising intelligence-sharing between Japan and Korea, he said, “damages the South Korean capability” and may “wreck the alliance” between the U.S. and South Korea.
If the latest overflights by Russian and Chinese planes bear any message for Korea’s government, it is that Seoul faces enemies on all sides and needs all the intelligence it can get.
“Japan has technical superiority far beyond that of South Korea,” said Kim Tae-woo. “We will be the immediate victims of failure of the agreement.” The exchange works both ways, he said, with Japanese benefiting from South Korean interviews with defectors, and even contacts inside North Korea. The South Koreans, he said, actually stand to benefit more than the Japanese—that is, when the two sides are cooperating seriously.
In a larger sense, U.S. officials worry over the future of trilateral cooperation among the U.S., Japan and South Korean defense systems. No one imagines a trilateral alliance. Both Japan and South Korea would not consider such a notion after their long history of slights and slurs, colonial domination and exploitation, hardship and suffering.
One expert calls for more transparency in the entire discussion. “I think it is important for the U.S. to be public about its desire to see better trilateral coordination at best and the absence of a breakdown at worst,” said Victor Cha, a member of the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, now at Georgetown University. “Private messages will not do as the governments in Seoul and Tokyo only respond to public statements.”
Nonetheless, U.S. military planners persist in promoting serious cooperation against threats posed by both North Korea and China.
The South Korean government “has been avoiding trilateral coordination for some time, which can't be good,” said Evans Revere, former senior diplomat here and in Washington. “A decision not to renew GSOMIA would be a major blow to trilateral cooperation on North Korea. It would send the worst possible signal to the U.S. and Japan.”
The message, said Revere, is that South Korea “is prioritizing its spat with Japan over its own security.” He added: that would be music to North Korean ears” even though “ it's hard to imagine” South Korea “actually shooting itself in the foot by bailing out of GSOMIA.”
Revere acknowledged, though, “in the current poisonous atmosphere, anything is possible”—a concern obviously shared by Bolton as he looks to persuade Seoul of the need for cooperation with both Tokyo and Washington.