No one should be so foolish as to take them seriously.
President Moon Jae-in's last-minute decision to maintain the military intelligence agreement while continuing secret negotiations with Japan and the United States is generally perceived in Seoul as an indication of weakness and as a sign of a lack of strategic vision. Granted that Moon had publicly stated previously that the agreement would not be renewed, that perception is not without grounds.
Recently, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper toured Seoul, stressing to Moon and other politicians and military officials, that the impending termination of the GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement) between South Korea and Japan was a major concern for American security and that action must be taken.
The heated debate over this intelligence sharing agreement was interpreted as a sign of the growing distance between Seoul and Washington DC. It was also interpreted in a broader sense, in light of the general lack of concern for allies shown by President Donald Trump, as a sign of what the Asia policy expert Daniel Sneider describes as a "ripple effect of the American retreat."
As for the cause of this breakdown of the U.S. alliance system in Northeast Asia, different factions blame South Korea, Japan, the U.S., or all three, depending on their perceived interests.
Completely left out of the discussion on GSOMIA is why South Korea and Japan must have this military intelligence sharing program and how exactly it would work. Also left out is why the U.S. must have a large military presence in Asia forever.
The common assumption is that North Korea is such a military threat that South Korea and Japan must share intelligence with each other, and with the U.S., as part of an emerging proto-NATO for the region to counter Pyongyang's ambitions.
But is North Korea such a threat to the region? Many would say, with good reason, that the U.S. decision to withdraw from all weapons treaties, to open the door to the militarization of space, and to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons rather than destroying those that remain in accord with the Nonproliferation Treaty, seems to be the primary cause for uncertainty in the region.
Washington's increasingly hostile attitude of toward Russia and China is also a major factor behind current tensions.
But there are even greater sources of insecurity out there, such as the radical concentration of wealth, the degradation of the environment, and the rapid development of new technologies that affect people's ability to judge and to act in a rational and objective manner.
Not only are these security threats not mentioned in the GSOMIA, they are barely touched on in the media. That is to say that whether GSOMIA is appropriate or not, it is sadly irrelevant to the true security threats of this age.
As someone who studied in Japan for seven years, and who taught Japanese studies in the U.S. for nine years, and as someone who taught in South Korea for 12 years and has written extensively about both countries, nothing is more important to me than meaningful cooperation between the two countries. I have worked hard to promote cooperation in education, in scientific research, in diplomacy and between NGOs in South Korea and Japan for the past 20 years.
Yet I am finding it hard to get worked up about the dispute over GSOMIA. It is not the only means of cooperation between South Korea and Japan on security issues, or even the most important one.
The agreement is a result of an artificial debate within the security-policy community that does not reflect emerging threats.
And there was never any enthusiasm for GSOMIA in South Korea or Japan to start with.
Was the lack of enthusiasm for GSOMIA because the experts in South Korea and Japan were more naive about North Korea than their American colleagues? I doubt it.
The true problem is that the security assumptions that justified the American presence in Northeast Asia are changing very rapidly, and unless Washington adjusts policies, and methods to reflect the new circumstances, the American role will diminish rapidly regardless of how hard Seoul tries to maintain this intelligence sharing agreement.
Of course, the open hostility between South Korea and Japan that we observe today is deeply destructive and it must be addressed to avoid a dangerous transformation. I am not talking about a war with North Korea, but rather the risk of a regional arms race.
For this reason, it would be wisest if South Korea and Japan rapidly developed an agreement to replace GSOMIA, to make GSOMIA outdated, and do so in a manner that affirms the commitment of both countries to peace in the region, and establishes a new platform for cooperation.
Rather than obsessing on the North Korea threat, Seoul and Tokyo should put forth an agreement for information sharing (intelligence) concerning the overwhelming security threat for the region: climate change. A GCHIA (General Climate Change Information Agreement) would establish a system for the exchange of critical information concerning the state of the climate (and weather specifically) that would be invaluable to government, research institutes, the private sector, the military and ordinary citizens.
Such a GCHIA would also lead both nations to begin the critical process of transforming their militaries to focus on the threat of climate change and so that they completely revise their assumption that their role is the destruction of perceived enemies with weapons. Militaries should not give up all weapons, but they must focus primarily on the rapid mitigation of the causes of climate change, and the adaptation of society to climate change.
There are any number of creative approaches for both countries to share information concerning the state of the ocean, the soil, rivers and lakes, temperatures and the spread of pollution that can be the basis for cooperation between those two countries (and also cooperation with the U.S. and China). The overwhelming opinion among scientists is that climate change is the greatest threat we face. Responding to that threat can be a tremendous opportunity for South Korea and Japan to learn to work together in an effective manner to respond to a security threat confirmed by scientific evidence.
Let us not get hung up on this debate about GSOMIA. Let us rather take advantage of this shift to transform the definition of security and thereby promote even closer and deeper cooperation between South Korea and Japan that is more relevant to the threats of this age.