On November 22, South Korea’s Moon Jae In government announced the conditional suspension of its earlier decision to terminate the defense intelligence sharing agreement with Japan known as GSOMIA, or the General Security of Military Information Agreement.
Seoul also offered to withdraw its petition filed with the World Trade Organization against Japan’s toughened control on strategic exports to South Korea. Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry responded, saying that it would conduct director general-level talks with Seoul on the export control as Seoul indicated its willingness to improve its trade control regime. At the same time, the ministry reaffirmed the position that GSOMIA had nothing to do with the export control issue.
Moon Regime Addicted to False Announcements
Japan has agreed to consider withdrawing the tougher controls on three strategic goods, including hydrofluoric acid, on condition that South Korea deal with the strategic goods appropriately, according to reports from Seoul. Such an agreement would be consistent with Japan’s previous position on the matter.
Japan toughened the controls because it was suspected that South Korean firms have resold the strategic goods imported from Japan to third countries, including states that sponsor terrorism. South Korea had also failed to hold working-level talks with Japan on the adequacy of export controls since the Moon regime’s inauguration. If Seoul specifies measures to correct deficiencies in its export controls at future director general-level talks, Tokyo may withdraw its earlier decision to toughen the controls.
On November 24, the Moon government unilaterally demanded that Tokyo apologize, as Seoul protested that Japan’s statement on South Korea’s willingness to improve the export control arrangements was not true. In an immediate rebuttal to Seoul’s statement, the Japanese government claimed that it had coordinated with the South Koreans on the statement in advance.
The Moon government’s announcement was false. It also reminded me of another recent incident: soon after Seoul announced that Washington understood its August decision to repeal GSOMIA, Washington protested that Seoul’s announcement was not true.
As of August, South Korea’s foreign and defense ministries had opposed the proposal for repealing GSOMIA. However, President Moon made the decision on his own to terminate the agreement.
He apparently intended to give himself an edge in next April’s general election by instigating anti-Japan sentiments. Many former revolutionaries lining up in the South Korean presidential office wish to withdraw South Korea from its trilateral military alliance with Japan and the United States.
Wartime Workers Issue Remains Unresolved
Washington exerted strong pressure on Seoul by warning that the GSOMIA termination would hurt U.S. security interests, and the imposition of economic sanctions on South Korea was expected. The Moon government then gave up the plan to repeal GSOMIA.
At the same time, an opinion poll shows that 51% of South Korean citizens support the GSOMIA termination, while only 29% oppose it. Therefore, the latest decision to suspend the termination could add fuel to South Korea’s anti-Japan sentiments, as well as anti-American sentiments.
Most of South Korea’s mass media have opposed the GSOMIA termination, writing that both Tokyo and Seoul were responsible, and pursuing Japan’s responsibility for the dispute.
Supreme Court Fires Up More Anti-Japanese Sentiment
As for the fundamental trigger for the dispute, that was the South Korean Supreme Court’s ruling in October 2018 that ordered a Japanese company to pay compensations to wartime Korean workers in Japan. On it, too, the dominant media in South Korea have argued that Japan was wrong to have asked the South Korean government to handle the Supreme Court ruling properly.
Meanwhile, a conservative assemblage that calls itself a “national revolution” group is campaigning for the ouster of the Moon government. It correctly argued that the government should withdraw its position respecting the Supreme Court ruling, which runs counter to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and should take domestic measures to protect the Japanese company’s private assets.
The fight between the right argument and the instigation of anti-Japan sentiments has not ended.
Author: Tsutomu Nishioka
Tsutomu Nishioka is a senior fellow and a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a visiting professor at Reitaku University. He covers South and North Korea.