Gsomia withdrawal looking less likely

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Gsomia withdrawal looking less likely

Signals are growing that the Moon Jae-in administration may reverse its decision to withdraw from a military intelligence pact with Japan - 17 days before the final deadline.

Suh Hoon, director of the National Intelligence Service, told lawmakers Monday that the possibility must remain open that the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or Gsomia, with Japan will be renewed. Suh made the remark during a National Assembly Intelligence Committee’s audit of the spy agency.

Rep. Lee Hye-hoon, chairwoman of the committee, briefed the media after the closed-door meeting.

Citing President Moon Jae-in’s 11-minute talk with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday at a regional summit, Lee quoted Suh as saying that “we must not rule out the possibility [of keeping the agreement].”

The Gsomia is scheduled to formally expire as of midnight Nov. 22 unless South Korea recants its decision to walk away. The Moon administration decided on Aug. 22 to withdraw from the pact following Japan’s removal of South Korea from a list of preferred trading partners.

The trade spat was a result of an ongoing diplomatic dispute concerning the South Korean Supreme Court’s rulings last year that Japanese companies must compensate Korean victims of wartime forced labor.

Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo also hinted at a change in Seoul’s position Monday. “If it helps our national security, even a little, it should be maintained,” Jeong told lawmakers during an audit of the Defense Ministry.

Stressing that he spoke about the importance of the Gsomia on several earlier occasions, Jeong added that Tokyo’s qualms over security aspects of exports to South Korea should also be resolved if the Gsomia is to be kept.

In July, Tokyo said it had worries about its exports to South Korea finding their way to North Korea as part of its justification for export restrictions.

Jeong’s remarks on Monday were a change from an earlier position. In August, he expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of the Gsomia during a National Assembly session.

Speculation was also growing that defense ministers from South Korea and Japan would soon have talks. Japan’s Sankei Shimbun reported Monday that the two neighbors will have defense ministerial talks in Bangkok later this month. The Ministry of National Defense said Tuesday that it could not confirm the report, but did not deny it.

If a meeting between South Korean and Japanese defense ministers takes place, it will be on the sidelines of a defense ministerial conference of Asean from Nov. 16 to 19. It would be the first defense ministerial talks between Seoul and Tokyo since October 2018.

The United States, which sees the Gsomia as a key tool for regional security cooperation, is increasing its pressure on South Korea. David Stilwell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, arrived in Seoul Tuesday and will meet with Blue House and Foreign Ministry officials today. He is expected to deliver Washington’s message that Seoul must stay in the pact with Tokyo.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Korea and Japan Marc Knapper also pressured Seoul. “Nobody is happy with the situation. Actually not nobody - there are people happy with the situation, but they happen to be in Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang,” Knapper said in a recent interview with the Nikkei in Tokyo.

“All conversations I recently had with U.S. officials and politicians began with frustrations that South Korea decided to end the Gsomia with Japan, not the North Korean nuclear issues,” a diplomatic source who recently visited Washington told the JoongAng Ilbo on Tuesday. “Almost everyone talked like Knapper. They are worried that South Korea’s decision will benefit enemies.”

Because the United States considers the Gsomia between South Korea and Japan an instrument to check China, it may make larger demands on South Korea, such as more active participation in its Indo-Pacific strategy, analysts said. The Moon administration has been reluctant to fully join the initiative, which is designed to contain China’s influence in the region.

In fact, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach is in Seoul and will meet with his Foreign Ministry counterpart today. The topic of their discussion is linking South Korea’s policy to engage southern countries with the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States, the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday.

The Moon administration, however, faces a dilemma in reversing its decision on the Gsomia. It has said that Japan must withdraw restrictions on exports to South Korea, but there is no sign that Tokyo will budge.

Also, an opinion poll conducted by the East Asia Institute on Monday showed that 60.3 percent of the South Korean public backs the government’s decision to end the pact.

Diplomatic sources and analysts said Seoul needs a face-saving justification. “When Moon met with Abe in Bangkok on Monday, he proposed a higher-level consultation,” said Park Ihn-hwi, a professor of international politics at Ewha Womans University.

“Japan should accept it and agree to launch a new channel to address outstanding issues including the forced labor issue. Only then can the government reconsider its decision to scrap the Gsomia.”

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