South Korea’s GSOMIA Decision and Northeast Asian Trilateralism

Solomon Islands prepares to ditch Taiwan; a Taliban deal?; China’s October parade

The Big One.

The end of Northeast Asian trilateralism?

(L-R) South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung Wha, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono following talks in Bangkok, 2 August 2019 (Photo: Kyodo News via Getty)

In August, the government of South Korea announced that it would not renew its participation in the 2016 General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. GSOMIA’s demise has been met with great dismay in Washington, D.C., where it is seen as the loss of an important fundamental building block in trilateral coordination in Northeast Asia as the diplomatic crisis between Seoul and Tokyo continues to worsen—and that’s true. 

By many measures, the agreement was a totem for a grand, new trilateral future in Asia. The Obama administration sought to network U.S. alliances to make them greater than the sum of their parts and this decision by Seoul swipes at that legacy. But more seriously, Seoul’s decision shows just how far South Korea-Japan relations have declined. As I told the New York Times shortly after the announcement by Seoul, the two countries have started viewing each other as “adversaries.” (Not enemies, per se, but each is seeking to impose costs on the other.)

GSOMIA, which will remain in effect until November, wasn’t a specialized pact. In fact, GSOMIAs are a fairly generic sort of agreement. The United States has similar pacts with scores of countries and South Korea maintains GSOMIAs with more than 30. The South Korea-Japan GSOMIA allowed—but did not require—Seoul and Tokyo to share classified military information (CMI) with each other seamlessly. In effect, the agreement established agreed-upon practices for the sharing of CMI.

When the agreement was finally concluded in the Obama administration’s final months in office, U.S. Secretary of State Ash Carter issued a statement emphasizing that the ROK-Japan GSOMIA was valuable precisely because of what it offered the two countries in managing the North Korea threat. “By sharing appropriate security information, they will enhance their deterrence posture against North Korean aggression and strengthen their ability to defend against continued missile launches and nuclear tests, both of which are explicitly prohibited by U.N. Security Council resolutions,” Carter noted in a statement.

For South Korea, the loss of GSOMIA will cause an appreciable degradation in the kinds of military information available about North Korean missile launch activity, for instance. Japan maintains a more robust sensor array than South Korea and Seoul will have to rely more on information from the far more superior U.S. land-, sea-, air-, and space-based sensor array to gather information on North Korean launches beyond what its terrestrial radars might offer.

The politics of GSOMIA nonrenewal in South Korea are complex. Informed watchers of South Korean politics have told me that the progressive left in Seoul remains divided on the issue. Writing for The Diplomat, Troy Stangarone takes a look at the public perceptions of the pact in South Korea:

Originally signed in 2016, GSOMIA was controversial even then. At the time, 59 percent of the South Korean public opposed the agreement. However, despite the current tensions between South Korea and Japan, only 47.7 percent of South Koreans initially supported ending the agreement (though since South Korea announced its decision those numbers have risen to nearly 55 percent).

Meanwhile, over at Tokyo Keizai, Dan Sneider writes on the Japanese government’s approach to Seoul’s decision on GSOMIA—and the role of President Trump’s indifference in particular. “There is another reason why Japanese officials do not listen to the even-handed pleas of U.S. administration officials – as long as the blame falls mainly on Moon and Seoul, they are quietly happy,” Sneider adds.

Bottom Line: Economics and national security: the South Korea-Japan crisis is spilling into all dimensions of the relationship.

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South Asia.

September 1 has now come and gone. Why does that date matter? Well, earlier in the year, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said that was the deadline by which he “hope[d]” to have a deal with the Taliban. The exact contours of a U.S. exit deal with the Taliban have been thrown into flux in recent days.

In the last week of August, U.S. President Donald J. Trump said that the United States would seek to maintain a presence of some 8,600 troops in Afghanistan—even after a deal with the Taliban. “We’re going down to 8,600 and then we make a determination from there as to what happens … we’re bringing it down,” Trump told Fox News Radio.

Similarly, General Joseph Dunford, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned that an agreement with the Taliban would take into consideration the security situation in Afghanistan. “I think it’s premature,” Dunford said, to address the prospect of a total withdrawal. “I’m not using the ‘withdraw’ word right now,” he added. “We’re going to make sure our, that Afghanistan’s not a sanctuary.”

Days later, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy in talks with the Taliban, has presented a deal that would lead to the withdrawal of 5,400 troops from Afghanistan within an initial 135 day period. But there’s still uncertainty. “In principle, on paper, yes we have reached an agreement — that it is done,” Khalilzad said in an interview with an Afghan news channel. “But it is not final until the president of the United States also agrees to it.”

What Trump intends to agree to on Afghanistan remains unclear. On one hand, going into an election year, Trump may see an advantage in becoming the American president to have finally ended the country’s longest-running war. On the other, his recent comments to Fox News suggest that he’s taken a leaf from his military advisers and will seek to maintain several thousands troops through the end of his term. (8,600 troops would be a higher number than the 8,400 that were in Afghanistan at the time when Obama left office.)

Finally, beyond troop counts, the political contours of the final deal remain unclear. The Afghan government has serious concerns about power-sharing. Afghan presidential elections, meanwhile, have been set for September 28, but it’s an open question if they’ll move forward—or go well if they do occur. The Taliban, meanwhile, appear to be no closer to ending their campaign of terror against Afghan civilians. Just as Khalilzad announced the finalization of an agreement in principle, another bombing ripped through Kabul. The future of Afghanistan still contains more questions than answers at this point.

Bottom Line: A U.S.-Taliban deal might soon be announced, but it’s far from clear what exactly it’ll mean for the U.S. presence in the country and the country’s political future.

In Case You Missed It: Mistranslated remarks from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on the country’s nuclear policy were widely reported earlier this week. The bad news? There’s no change in Pakistani nuclear policy. 

Asia Defense.

The Dong Feng 41—or DF-41—is one of the most talked-about Chinese ballistic missiles, but the world has yet to get a clear picture of the missile itself or its capabilities. China hasn’t officially unveiled this intercontinental-range ballistic missile, but it’s starting to look like there’s a very good shot that we’ll get our first clean look at the DF-41 at the upcoming October 1 military parade in Beijing to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The DF-41, known to the U.S. intelligence community as the CSS-X-20, is a multiple-warhead-capable, road-mobile, solid-fuel ICBM.

Not only have well-informed sources said that the DF-41 will make an appearance, but satellite imagery analysts have already spotted large integrated transporter-erector-launchers at a parade training ground northwest of Beijing. 

In the image above, 18 DF-41s, 18 DF-31AG (first seen in 2017) ICBMs, and 18 DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missiles are seen.

Bottom Line: China’s October 1 military parade is likely to reveal the DF-41 ICBM to the world for the first time.

An anniversary: Two years ago, this week, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test—its largest to date and the largest man-made explosion on Earth in some 21 years (maybe even 25 years). 

Two years later, not a single nuclear weapon in North Korea—let alone other facility—has been verifiably dismantled, despite three leader-level U.S.-North Korea summit meetings.

Don’t Miss It: Remember the Stuxnet worm that disabeld Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz? Well, a critical part of the story that made that malware attack possible for the United States and Israel has just come through. Kim Zetter and Huib Modderkolk report at Yahoo News that Dutch intelligence cultivated a critical human asset in Iran that facilitated the attack.

Southeast Asia.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the end of August. Remarkably, the meeting marked the eighth between the two leaders since Duterte came to power in Manila in 2016. This time, the South China Sea topped the agenda. Duterte has faced criticism domestically for not pressing the Philippines’ maritime entitlements and rights in disputed waters. My colleague Shannon Tiezzi sums up the context leading up to the visit:

Rising anger at the perceived weakness of his China policy pushed Duterte to announce that, during this week’s visit, he would at long last raise the topic of a 2016 international arbitration ruling on the South China Sea that went against China. The case, initiated by Duterte’s predecessor, resulted in a near-complete victory for Manila – most notably the repudiation of China’s claims to “historic rights” over features in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Beijing, however, has consistently refused to recognize the ruling, and Duterte had – until now – also declined to bring it up, despite polls showing that nearly 90 percent of the Philippine public want the topic discussed with China. Finally, last week the Philippine president pledged to raise the issue in his talks with Xi.

One of the important outcomes this time was the establishment of a steering committee that they two sides had agreed to establish in principle last November. The steering committee will address the issue of joint resource exploration. On this particular issue, CNN Philippines has an exclusive, reporting on the details of the steering committee. Of note: “The TOR does not specify a specific area covered but Duterte and other officials have mentioned about a 60-40 sharing in favor of the Philippines in the exploration of Recto Bank (international name is Reed Bank; Chinese name is Liyue Tan) in Palawan, within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.” Though South China Sea watcher Greg Poling offers caution on this point:

There are likely to be road bumps in the steering committee process ahead, but Duterte is finally taking China

Bottom Line: After Duterte’s latest China visit, Manila and Beijing look to make progress on the joint resource exploration issue in the South China Sea.

Don’t Miss It: Prashanth Parameswaran and I discussed the implications of the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN maritime exercise on the most recent episode of the Asia Geopolitics podcast. (We also discuss the South Korea-Japan dispute over GSOMIA.)

Oceania.

It’s starting to look like Taiwan may find itself losing yet another diplomatic ally. The Solomon Islands is about to wrap up a study on switching its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. After a series of defections beginning in 2016, Taiwan has just 17 countries that recognize it and maintain normal diplomatic ties, including the Solomon Islands. Under the “One China” principle, Beijing and Taipei maintain diplomatic relations with a mutually exclusive set of countries. No country maintains normal diplomatic relations with both governments. The Solomon Islands has recognized Taipei since 1983. A ministerial task force studying the possibility of a switch in diplomatic ties returned from a tour of Pacific Island states that maintain ties with China. In mid-August, a group of ministers from the Solomon Islands went to Beijing.

The Chinese government has not officially addressed the possibility of the Solomon Islands switching diplomatic ties. Speaking at a press briefing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson simply said that China was willing to have diplomatic relations with all countries provided they respect the “One China” principle. In any case, watch this space: the Solomon Islands’ final decision could come as soon as this month.

Extras.

The September 2019 issue of the Diplomat’s magazine is now out. This month, we remember Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement while explaining how the events of five years ago led to the current protests sweeping the city. We also evaluate the pace and scope of reforms in Uzbekistan after Karimov, take a hard look at the human costs of Australia’s immigration policy, and explore how North Korea uses cat-and-mouse tactics at sea to avoid sanctions. And, of course, we offer a range of reporting, analysis, and opinion from across the region.

Read the issue by clicking the image above (subscription required).

This newsletter is written by Ankit Panda, senior editor for The Diplomat, and director of research at Diplomat Risk Intelligence. Please do feel free to reach out with comments, tips, and feedback at ankit@thediplomat.com and follow me on Twitter at @nktpnd and The Diplomat at @Diplomat_APAC.

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