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Japan-South Korea rift

US pressure behind Seoul's 11th-hour pivot on GSOMIA intel pact

Japan-Korea tensions over trade and forced labor leave fate in limbo

U.S. and South Korean Marines take part in a joint military amphibious exercise, part of the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military drills.   © AP

SEOUL -- South Korea's last-minute decision Friday not to terminate an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan followed mounting pressure from the U.S. to salvage an arrangement that symbolizes security cooperation between two of its closest allies.

A U.S. State Department representative welcomed Seoul's decision to suspend the termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, saying it "sends a positive message that like-minded allies can work through bilateral disputes."

"Given our shared regional and global challenges, decisions to strengthen trilateral cooperation are timely and critical," the representative said.

Lockstep security cooperation with both Japan and South Korea is essential to U.S. efforts to contain North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile threat and to counterbalance China. But the tensions between the two neighbors over trade and historical issues that led to Seoul's initial decision could still doom the agreement.

Almost immediately after Seoul announced in August that it would not renew GSOMIA, the U.S. expressed "strong concern and disappointment."

This month, with the deadline approaching, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with senior South Korean government and military officials to press them to stay in the deal.

South Korea felt the pressure especially keenly in negotiations over its share of the cost of hosting American troops. Less than an hour and a half into a round of talks on this topic on Tuesday, lead U.S. negotiator James DeHart cut the meeting short and left. Washington reportedly demanded that Seoul increase its contribution nearly fivefold next year to $4.7 billion.

South Korean conservatives grew increasingly worried that the U.S. might move to scale back its military presence if Seoul did not change its tune. Hwang Kyo-ahn, head of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party, declared a hunger strike Wednesday to prevent what he called a "critical national crisis," citing issues including GSOMIA.

But while the agreement has been salvaged for now, President Moon Jae-in's government stressed that the move is a "conditional suspension" of the GSOMIA termination, contingent on Japan ending the trade restrictions that led to Seoul's initial decision to scrap the deal.

Japan in July tightened controls on exports of three vital chipmaking materials to South Korea, and it later removed the country from a whitelist of trusted trading partners. These steps were seen in Seoul as retaliation for court decisions last year ordering Japanese companies to compensate South Koreans forced to work for them during World War II.

Moon has argued that sharing military intelligence with Japan would be difficult given that Tokyo cited distrust of Seoul on security as justification for the tougher trade controls. Many in South Korea had supported the GSOMIA termination out of antipathy toward Japan.

Tokyo has objected to Seoul scrapping the pact because of the trade dispute, asserting that the two issues are completely unrelated. This stance has not changed, though Japan agreeing to hold working-level talks on the export controls gave Moon cover for his decision to stay in the intelligence-sharing deal.

But a representative of South Korea's presidential Blue House stressed Friday that Seoul can still leave GSOMIA if Japan does not remove the tightened trade restrictions.

Little progress has been made on this front so far. Seoul and Tokyo have held two rounds of talks on the chipmaking export restrictions as part of a World Trade Organization dispute resolution process, but without success. "We have not decided whether to put South Korea back on the whitelist at this point," a representative of Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said Friday.

In pushing for Seoul's return to GSOMIA, Washington did not touch on the historical issues at the root of the clash, instead stressing the agreement's significance to America's national security, according to a diplomatic insider.

"We encourage [South Korea] and Japan to continue sincere discussions to ensure a lasting solution to historic issues," the State Department representative said.

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