In Brief

Why the Japan-South Korea Dispute Just Got Worse

Seoul’s decision to abandon an important military intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo could hurt regional security and U.S. interests related to China and North Korea.

In the wake of months-long campaigns of economic coercion, the Japan-South Korea relationship has entered a dangerous new stage with Seoul’s decision to not renew a vital intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo.

Why is this intelligence-sharing agreement important?

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The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) allows the Japanese and South Korean governments to share sensitive intelligence, including information related to North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities. It went into effect in 2016 and provides assurances that information will remain confidential. Now it’s set to expire in November.

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Although GSOMIA is a bilateral agreement, its nonrenewal makes trilateral cooperation with Washington less efficient. Without it, only limited intelligence on North Korea will be shared between the two countries via the United States, at a time when Pyongyang is testing missiles at a furious pace.

How bad is the Japan-South Korea relationship?

South Korea’s decision marks the latest deterioration of the Japan-South Korea relationship following disagreements over a 2015 agreement on women forced into sexual slavery during World War II, known as comfort women. The situation worsened when the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies must compensate South Korean workers for forced labor during the war.

In July, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration imposed export restrictions on goods needed by South Korean companies to produce semiconductors and took steps to remove South Korea from Japan’s list of trusted trading partners. South Korea responded by removing Japan from its own white list of trade partners and then announcing it would not renew GSOMIA. South Korea also conducted military drills near the contested Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, prompting protests from Japan.

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A South Korean and Japanese flag wave in the sky.
A police officer stands guard near Japanese and South Korean flags. Toru Hanai/Reuters

What does this mean for the United States?

The United States has bilateral defense treaties with both Japan and South Korea, and this alliance structure is the backbone of U.S.-led security architecture in Northeast Asia that has kept peace there for decades. Despite U.S. views regarding the importance of GSOMIA, the South Korean government decided not to renew the agreement.

So far, the Donald J. Trump administration has been unable and unwilling to take extra steps to stabilize Japan-South Korea relations. The nonrenewal of GSOMIA is a potentially damaging development, and ultimately represents a setback to the United States’ long-standing role as a stabilizing force in Northeast Asia.

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Where do the countries go from here?

Japan and South Korea should cease tit-for-tat behavior so the situation does not deteriorate further. Tokyo should not retaliate against Seoul’s nonrenewal of GSOMIA, and both countries should go back to treating each other as trusted trade partners. They must realize that they are neighbors and have to live with each other, regardless of whether they like each other.

The United States should encourage Japan and South Korea to take steps to stabilize their relationship, because instability could harm U.S. interests and hamper its efforts in the region. Washington should not work as a mediator between the two because only they can build a sustainable solution for their historical grievances. But it should create an environment in support of stable Japan-South Korea relations by holding a trilateral summit that reaffirms the importance of security cooperation.

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