The tensions between Japan and South Korea have reached a new dimension, their effects now extending into the realm of international security. To say that this is highly regrettable is an understatement.
The South Korean government on Aug. 22 announced that it would scrap the 3-year-old General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), an intelligence-sharing arrangement with Japan. Seoul stated that GSOMIA "does not serve our national interests," a judgment Seoul says it arrived at because Tokyo has not provided a clear explanation for placing controls on certain exports to South Korea and revoking its preferential trade status.
It appears the South Korean government is looking to appeal to domestic public opinion as it takes a hard-line stance against Japan. When Tokyo announced last month that it was placing controls on South Korea-bound exports of materials vital for semiconductor production, distrust of Seoul was given as the reason. The latest move reciprocates, with South Korea indicating plainly that it doubts it can share confidential information with Japan in the absence of a mutually trusting relationship.
Vestiges of the Cold War remain in Northeast Asia, entwining China, Russia and North Korea. Japan and South Korea ought to share the basic values underpinning democracy, and it is a grave error for them to indulge in a verbal tit-for-tat squabble that will lay waste to all the fruits of their bilateral security cooperation.
GSOMIA is a declaration to audiences at home and abroad that Japan, South Korea and the United States are firm in their cooperation on North Korean issues. For Seoul and Tokyo, the framework plays an important role in analysis of North Korean ballistic missile launch trajectories, and apparently allowed the smooth sharing of intelligence among the three powers.
That being the case, Japan and the U.S. both made strong calls for GSOMIA to be extended. The agreement's cancellation could spell further escalation of the confrontation between Tokyo and Seoul, and cast a shadow over the U.S.-South Korea alliance as well.
In recent years, South Korea has displayed a cautious attitude to security cooperation with Japan, with the latter's colonial history on the Korean Peninsula and Seoul's increasing attention to China's growing presence both playing a part. Just before GSOMIA was to be signed, South Korea delayed the ceremony due, it said, to the domestic situation. At the time, the agreement was facing stiff opposition from South Korea's political left -- forces that are now connected with the government.
However, part of the responsibility for the current predicament lies with the Japanese administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
It is true that the South Korean administration of President Moon Jae-in has taken a consistently faithless position on historical problems including the comfort women and forced labor issues. Nevertheless, it was inappropriate for the Abe government to tangle diplomatic problems up with Japan's economic policy. Tokyo ought to have seen Seoul's hard-line reaction coming.
The costs of this bilateral rivalry will not only be economic. It will also impact cultural, sports and human exchange across the Sea of Japan. The two countries must understand that they are both responsible for correcting the steep downturn in bilateral ties.