Top brass in Washington rue decision on Gsomia

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Top brass in Washington rue decision on Gsomia

The Pentagon chief expressed disappointment Wednesday on the diplomatic spat between Seoul and Tokyo that led to South Korea’s decision to end its bilateral intelligence-sharing pact with Japan but acknowledged blame on both sides.

“I was, and I remain, very disappointed that both parties are engaged in this,” said U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper during a joint press conference at the Pentagon in Washington with Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Dunford said he shares Esper’s “disappointment in what I view as a setback in the relationship between South Korea and Japan,” though he has yet to see “an impact on military operations right now.” Seoul’s decision not to renew its General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Tokyo actually doesn’t take effect until Nov. 23, when the agreement expires.

This was a slight divergence from a statement last week in which the Pentagon appeared to put the blame largely on South Korea after the Blue House announced its decision to terminate the Gsomia with Japan on Aug. 22. Seoul was responding to Tokyo’s removal of South Korea from a so-called white list of trusted trade partners after citing ambiguous security concerns.

Tokyo is seen to be retaliating against South Korean court rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate forced labor victims during World War II, as the two countries struggle with historical issues stemming from Japanese colonial rule over South Korea.

In a statement issued by a U.S. Defense Department spokesman on Aug. 22, the Pentagon expressed its “strong concern and disappointment” that the Moon Jae-in administration withheld its renewal of the Gsomia. It is rare for Washington to criticize a specific administration in such manner.

First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young on Wednesday called in U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the Gsomia issue and South Korea-Japan relations.

Cho was said to have asked for “restraint” in Washington’s public messaging critical of Seoul, according to a source, and explained South Korea’s position on Japan’s unwarranted export restrictions on South Korea and removal from the white list, while stressing Seoul’s commitment to the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

During the Pentagon press conference Wednesday, Esper said he has “urged” his South Korean and Japanese counterparts “to work it out between them.”

“We share more interests and values and things in common than we do not,” noted Esper.

He said he would rather “move forward and get back on the important track,” and work together to “broaden our partnerships, strengthen our alliance and make sure we’re prepared for the future.”

Dunford likewise noted that it is in the “collective interest” of Seoul, Tokyo and Washington “to have an effective relationship amongst the three of us.”

He added that “we’re going to continue to try to work” and get relations “back in a positive direction.”

Dunford said there are “other ways of sharing information” and mechanisms in place to deal with an “alliance crisis or contingency,” but “none as effective as a very strong bilateral information-sharing agreement between the two countries.”

Seoul and Tokyo can share intelligence with Washington serving as an intermediary through the Trilateral Information Sharing Arrangement (TISA), a three-way agreement that was signed in December 2014.

Washington has pushed for trilateral security cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo, and the fallout between its two major allies in Northeast Asia also impacts its strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. Deteriorated Seoul-Tokyo relations also impacts coordination on North Korea denuclearization policy.

Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, at a seminar earlier the same day, claimed again that the United States was “not forewarned” by South Korea “in terms of the actual decision to not renew” the Gsomia, despite the issue having been discussed during Esper’s visits to Seoul and Tokyo earlier this month. “In the immediate near term, we do call on South Korea to recommit to Gsomia and to renew that agreement, and we also call on both sides to participate in meaningful dialogue to address their differences,” Schriver said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank in Washington. Schriver’s remarks came despite Cho’s request to U.S. Ambassador Harris for Washington to dial back any public criticism of Seoul. A Foreign Ministry official on Thursday said there was seen to be a shift in the “nuance” of the Pentagon chief’s remarks during the Wednesday press conference but noted that Schriver’s remarks in contrast “were made in a closed-door seminar.”

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