By Gregory Elich
Back in August, South Korea’s 90-day notice that it would withdraw from the General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement (GSOMIA) set off alarm bells in Washington. The agreement provided the means for South Korea and Japan to directly share military intelligence on North Korea.
The decision to terminate participation in GSOMIA was prompted by Japan’s removal of South Korea from its whitelist of trusted trade partners and the imposition of export controls on three materials essential to the production of memory chips and display panels. Japan was retaliating for former forced laborers having filed lawsuits in Korean courts against Japanese firms that had exploited them under Imperial Japanese colonial rule.
To the South Koreans, the Japanese government’s harsh retaliation undermined the sense of trust on which GSOMIA was predicated.
In Washington, the decision to abandon GSOMIA triggered an immediate and tenacious response, as one high-ranking official after another visited Seoul, trying to strong-arm South Korea into rescinding its plan to terminate the agreement.
The U.S. Senate also weighed in, passing by unanimous consent a resolution declaring that GSOMIA is “crucial to safeguarding United States and allied interests in Northeast Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific region,” and warning South Korea that suspension of the agreement “directly harms United States national security.”
Expressing the indignation felt by many in the Washington establishment, one unnamed American official fumed that cancellation of the agreement would result in a “ripple effect beyond imagination.”
In talks with its Korean counterparts, the U.S. side proposed delaying termination of GSOMIA to allow time for South Korea and Japan to resolve their dispute. Under mounting pressure, South Korea caved in at the last moment and agreed to let GSOMIA continue, while engaging in discussions with Japan.
As a further concession, South Korea dropped its case against Japan at the World Trade Organization. All it received in return from the Japanese side was an assurance of dialogue.
On its face, Washington’s ferocious opposition to South Korea’s decision seemed inexplicable. The Trilateral Information-Sharing Arrangement (TISA), which predated GSOMIA, remained in effect. TISA is said to differ from GSOMIA primarily in that the United States acts as an intermediary on intelligence sharing between South Korea and Japan. All GSOMIA did was remove the U.S. from the middleman role. With or without GSOMIA, there would still be a mechanism in place for exchanging military intelligence.
According to a South Korean military official, “The biggest difference between TISA and GSOMIA may be the speed in exchanging the information, as the U.S. would be in the middle to pass on the information for TISA. But I believe there will not be much difference.”
So then, what is it about GSOMIA that matters so deeply to U.S. military strategists? Why the diplomatic battering ram approach in talks with South Korea?
The content of the agreement is not the issue. What Washington wants is South Korea and Japan cooperating, and GSOMIA is seen as a stepping stone to drawing the two nations more deeply into an anti-China and anti-Russia alliance. After GSOMIA, the intent is to initiate one agreement after another until South Korea and Japan find themselves enmeshed in an aggressive and destabilizing alliance.
As long as South Korea and Japan remain at odds, the U.S. plan to consolidate the role of South Korea as a pawn in serving American strategic goals is stalled. Regardless of what the Koreans or Japanese may want, Washington will not allow anything to derail cooperation between their nations.
Eric Sayers, former special consultant to the Commander’s Action Group at U.S. Pacific Command, and now with the Center for a New American Security, spoke glowingly of some initial possibilities. “The medium- or long-term desire was to use [GSOMIA] as events allowed for, the politics allowed for, to build something bigger. You could dream on it growing to include missile defense…maybe anti-submarine operations as well.”
Just how crucial alliance-building is to achieving U.S. objectives is outlined in the Defense Department’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which identifies China and Russia as its “principal priorities.” U.S. strategy depends on a “more lethal, resilient, and rapidly innovating Joint Force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners.” The alliance with other nations “will sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power.” Failure to implement the strategy, the document darkly warns, “will result in decreasing U.S. global influence” and “reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in our prosperity and standard of living.”
Reliance on military support from allies strengthens “the long-term advancement of our interests,” the document states. Quite clearly, the task assigned to allied nations is to serve U.S. geopolitical interests.
The concept of stationary deployments is outmoded, the document maintains. “Force posture and employment must be adaptable,” through what is termed “dynamic force employment” to “provide proactive and scalable operations for priority missions.” Under that model, U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), for example, would not have to remain tied to the Korean Peninsula. It should be able to intervene anywhere in the Asia-Pacific.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Defense issued its Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, which provided further detail on plans. Allied nations are assigned the role of “force multiplier” to the U.S. military in the Asia-Pacific, “and if necessary,” to “fight and win together.”
The United States “is strongly emphasizing trilateral mechanisms,” the report indicates, and the U.S.-Korean-Japanese partnership is “critical to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region.” In the parlance of the U.S. military, the phrase ‘peace and security’ translates to American domination, and it is the Indo-Pacific region that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley deems “the number one regional priority for the United States military.”
Washington is already pressing South Korea to agree to a broader scope for combined military operations. According to South Korean sources, the Trump administration wants to revise the crisis management manual to include “U.S. contingencies,” thereby establishing a framework for South Korea to join the United States in out-of-area military operations.
The transformation of the U.S.-South Korean military alliance from an ostensibly defensive nature to an offensive orientation is going to cost significantly more money. The Trump administration insists that South Korea more than quintuple the amount of money it pays to Washington for the stationing of USFK on its territory.
It is assumed that South Korea should pay whatever sum is demanded, but USFK is in Korea for the benefit of U.S. geopolitical interests, and to whatever extent those may overlap with South Korea’s needs is happenstance. In the context of military bases stretching across the globe, the U.S. presence in Korea has far more to do with encircling China and Russia than it does with protecting South Korea. At any rate, South Korea has far more advanced weaponry than its neighbor to the north and is in no danger of attack.
“For decades the United States has enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain,” the 2018 National Defense Strategy observes. “We could generally deploy our forces when we wanted, assemble them where we wanted, and operate how we wanted. Today, every domain is contested – air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace.” The presence of the U.S. military in Korea is one component in the broader goal of returning to those halcyon days of overwhelming dominance.
The Trump administration’s demand for $5 billion per year has generated such antipathy among South Koreans that it will be a challenge for President Moon Jae-in to come up with a formula enabling him to yield to the United States. One possible solution would be for Moon to agree to pay the full amount, but with the increase stretched over the next few years. Moon’s proclivity for trying to please the United States is likely to win out in the end. Granted, the power of the United States is such that a small nation cannot act too independently. Even so, there may be more room for maneuver than Moon ever allows himself.
A more forbidding task for Moon is in deciding how to respond to U.S. efforts to draw his nation into a tripartite anti-China alliance. The United States can be counted on to be relentless in pursuit of what it regards as a key objective, and Moon is disinclined to say no. On the other hand, China is a neighbor on good terms and is South Korea’s leading trading partner. Indeed, South Korea’s volume of trade with China far exceeds that of the United States. It would be senseless for South Korea to antagonize China. But then, a precedent was set when the United States placed a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on Korean soil, principally aimed at China. If Moon drags his feet on joining an anti-China alliance, then the Trump administration or its successor can be expected to escalate the pressure on South Korea. It may require a more sophisticated balancing act than Moon can manage to avoid being made a partner to U.S. anti-China animus.
Gregory Elich is a Korea Policy Institute associate and on the Board of Directors of the Jasenovac Research Institute. He is a member of the Solidarity Committee for Democracy and Peace in Korea, a columnist for Voice of the People, and one of the co-authors of Killing Democracy: CIA and Pentagon Operations in the Post-Soviet Period, published in the Russian language. He is also a member of the Task Force to Stop THAAD in Korea and Militarism in Asia and the Pacific.
His website is https://gregoryelich.org
Follow him on Twitter at @GregoryElich
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