While the US has been able to maintain their existing military and security provision, it has been based on shaky assessments and shifting sands.
The closing months of last year were marked by a serious diplomatic stand-off between the ROK and Japan which included the former issuing an official statement they would not be renewing the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. It led, in effect, to the main Military Intelligence links between the two countries being temporarily rendered non-operational which was regarded by the US as a serious problem for their regional military and security provision. It is important, however, to study other aspects of the stand-off, which reveal a number of fascinating insights into diplomacy.
South Korea a problem for the US
The ROK has for decades been used to station large numbers of US troops for rapid deployment for the Defence of Japan doctrine. The US-led military position has now become strained; in recent years the rapid rise of China as a regional leader has seriously affected traditional hegemonic positions for the US. Today, the ROK has strong diplomatic links with China which likewise, has strong links with the North Korea (DPRK). The three countries are being drawn closer together.
The election of President Moon Jae-in the ROK has also resulted in dividing lines between the allegiances of the three countries becoming increasingly blurred. The presidential administration in the Blue House in Seoul, for example, has stated intentions of re-opening the Kaesong Trade Park in the DPRK, financed jointly by Chinese and ROK capital.
It has had far-reaching implication; behind the scenes, pro-US administrations in Tokyo have revealed they regard the ROK as having become 'unreliable', and have expressed fears the country has already re-exported various products to the DPRK, counter to US-imposed sanctions. (1)
Traditional US-led hegemonic positions in the Indo-Pacific region rest upon a triangular diplomatic relationship linking Japan and Australia as regional hubs for 'US interests'. Within the previous military plan, the hubs acted as spokes, with links between the ROK and Japan being placed 'on an equal footing'. (2)
Upgrading the ties between US and Japanese imperialisms
Following the 2017 ASEAN Summit where political leaders had high-level diplomatic talks, however, the three-way diplomacy was upgraded to include India as part of the revamped Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD). Diplomatic links between the four partner countries have also included the Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, a centre for Pentagon military planning, operational through a framework which has planned on hemming 'China in from all sides'. (3)
Within the new US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy, the ROK, together with Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, and others were also subsequently down-graded and considered lower-level partners, with the 'US-Japan alliance … upgraded to a global alliance'. (4)
The new US-Japan diplomatic position has become a source of renewed grievance for the ROK, which has always regarded the occupation of the Korean peninsula by Japan from 1910-45 as the basis for prolonged problems to the present day. The present Shinzo Abe administration in Tokyo has also been continually pushed by the US into hawkish positions toward China and the DPRK. Statements from Japan in recent years, therefore, referring to 'increased … potential for intervention on the Korean peninsula', have been regarded by the Moon Jae-in administration as a serious matter for concern. (5)
The problem of GSOMIA
A central feature of the previous US-led regional diplomacy included the GSOMIA, which has provided secure military intelligence from the ROK for Japan. Previous agreements, which began seemingly quite cordially in 2010, resulted in large-scale co-operation between the two countries. In recent years, however, their diplomatic relationship has become increasingly strained.
The GSOMIA was only eventually forced through by the previous ROK President Park Geun-hye after widespread opposition and heated negotiations. A feature of opposition to the GSOMIA, at the time, was that it was regarded as 'a spreading Cold War mentality' and that the ROK had no wish to be seen to antagonise China. (6)
The major stumbling block with US attempts to force through further rounds of GSOMIA has been their transition from initial select preoccupations with the DPRK nuclear program to the now expected unlimited sharing of all military information for US-led intelligence collection. (7) It was noted 'within the broader scheme of things, GSOMIA is seen as essential as a military intelligence sharing framework … its role as a key axis in the Indo-Pacific Strategy targeting China' (8)
The problems arising have also been exacerbated with demands by the Trump administration for the ROK to declare its full-scale support for the US positions and, furthermore, foot a larger part of the cost in their defence budget for continued participation in US-led regional military planning.
The resulting diplomatic position of the ROK has therefore revealed considerable brinkmanship and a failure to automatically accept the US dictat positions unconditionally.
An official statement from the ROK during the fierce diplomatic stand-off, for example, stated that 'South Korea needs to first demand a concrete list from the US in terms of how it is supposed to participate in the Indo-Pacific Strategy, examining it closely and choosing only those areas that are acceptable'. (9)
US demands South Korean compliance
The US, however, see their diplomacy with the ROK rather differently and regarded the GSOMIA as 'a lynch-pin in pursuing the US Indo-Pacific Strategy'; they required full ROK participation. (10) Following a further escalation of diplomatic tensions, the ROK response was both clear and unequivocal; they announced in late August, 2019, of their plans to scrap the intelligence pact. A statement issued by Kim You-geun, ROK deputy-director of the National Security Council, in fact, criticised Japan and then questioned the automatic need to renew the GSOMIA. (11)
Later, however, the military intelligence links were re-established following high-level diplomatic intervention by US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper who visited Seoul. The US position had been to 'push forcibly for a GSOMIA extension' and diplomacy between the US and ROK at the joint Security Consultative Committee (SCM) on 15 November had been 'poised to reach fever pitch'. (12) A well-placed source noted following the meetings with Esper that 'Washington demanded Seoul renew the pact'. (13) An earlier meeting between US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell had proved unsuccessful; while the US position stressed the importance of the GSOMIA, the ROK were apprehensive about automatically re-signing the agreement. (14)
It remains highly significant, therefore, to note the position of the Moon Jae-in presidential administration was to also regard the matter of the GSOMIA as not a particularly high priority. (15) For them, it was clearly not. The administration, subsequently therefore, took a further week before formally signing the new GSOMIA, only hours before it was due to finally expire. (16)
The ROK then played the whole matter down using usual diplomatic protocol.
It will be interesting to study recent military intelligence and diplomatic assessments of the developments in declassified documents in years to come. The US position would appear shaky, based on shifting sands and dramatically changing regional balances of forces. Both Washington and the Pentagon appear desperate to patch up existing agreements, for fear their present hegemonic position will decline still further.
Whether Australian people will ever have political leaders capable of standing up to the US in the manner the ROK has recently done, remains to be seen. We can only hope it will eventually happen. Until then Australian people will have to continue to observe a series of obsequious and sycophantic political and business leaders following the Washington and Pentagon line:
We need an independent foreign policy!
1. South Korea decides to renew GSOMIA, The Korean Times – National, 22 November 2019.
2. The reasons behind Washington's push for GSOMIA, Hankyoreh, 12 November 2019.
6. ROK – Japan intelligence sharing pact criticised, ECNS. CN. Military, 24 November 2016.
7. Hankyoreh, op.cit., 12 November 2019.
10. South Korea cuts intelligence ties with Japan, The Guardian (U.K.), 23 August 2019.
11. Korean Times, op.cit., 22 November 2019.
12. Hankyoreh, op.cit., 12 November 2019.
13. GSOMIA survives, The Japan times, 22 November 2019.
14. Hankyoreh, op.cit., 12 November 2019.
16. GSOMIA survives, op.cit., 22 November 2019.