The U.S.-South Korean alliance is strained by their differences over military pacts, and if the allies fail to reach agreements, Seoul’s national security could be at risk, experts said.
The pressure stems from two military agreements nearing expiration: Seoul’s intelligence sharing pact with Tokyo, set to expire Nov. 23, and Seoul’s defense cost sharing deal with Washington, expiring Dec. 31.
“There’s a lot of pressure on the alliance right now,” said Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corp. research center. “Because of that pressure, the alliance is not quite as strong as it’s been at some points in the past.”
Seoul has been refusing Washington’s demands to reverse its decision to terminate an intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo.
Withdrawal from GSOMIA
In August, Seoul announced it would withdraw from General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Tokyo. That came during a trade row that broke out in the summer, a disagreement rooted in South Korea’s historical grievances over forced labor during the Japanese colonial period from 1910 to 1940.
Washington sees GSOMIA as a crucial vehicle for its two allies to share sensitive military information, such as threats from North Korea or to communicate during a crisis.
“The U.S. government has ratcheted up considerable public pressure on South Korea not to go through with its GSOMIA nonrenewal decision,” said Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The U.S. sees GSOMIA less as a Japan issue than a regional security issue, while South Korea seems to be approaching GSOMIA solely in the context of bilateral relations with Japan,” he said.
Defense cost sharing
Adding to the pressure is Washington’s push for Seoul to pay $5 billion next year to share the costs of maintaining 28,500 American troops in South Korea.
The U.S. made the request during the last round of negotiations for the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) in Honolulu in October, and the increase is more than five times the $924 million that South Korea agreed to shoulder this year.
“Seoul and Washington will have to eventually compromise on defense cost sharing,” Snyder said, adding, “But how the issue is managed will have an impact on the quality of the relationship. Both sides need to bear that in mind.”
In considering how to reconcile the differences, Bennett said the allies have to bear in mind Pyongyang’s objective, which is to break the alliance so North Korea can have military superiority over South Korea, which it sees as a threat.
North Korea’s objective “has been to break the alliance totally, have U.S. forces completely withdrawn from Korea, no plan to bring them back to Korea, end the nuclear umbrella,” Bennett said. “If it’s got military superiority, the question is how does it decide to use that superiority? Does it invade the South? Perhaps, but maybe it only coerces the South and tells the South, ‘Look, we’re prepared to live peacefully. Just give us a hundred trillion won (about $85 billion) a year to help us build up our economy.’”
David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, met with South Korean officials in Seoul this week to discuss GSOMIA.
James DeHart, U.S. negotiator in the defense cost-sharing talks with South Korea, is in Seoul to gauge public sentiment ahead of another round of negotiations to take place in Seoul later this month.
According to a survey published by the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), 96% of South Koreans do not want Seoul to pay an increased share of its defense cost, although 91% think the U.S. military presence is necessary in South Korea.
Annual defense talks
The Pentagon on Thursday said Secretary of Defense Mark Esper will be in Seoul Nov. 15 to attend annual defense talks, the Security Consultative Meeting. He will meet with South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo and discuss security issues surrounding the alliance and “bilateral defense cooperation.”
Experts think Seoul should renew GSOMIA but that the U.S. has overburdened Seoul with a steep increase in SMA.
David Maxwell, a former U.S. Special Forces colonel and current fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said the relationship of the allies could be further strained if Seoul does not renew GSOMIA.
“The best way out of this is for [South Korean] President Moon [Jae-in] to seize the moral high ground, and he needs to stand up and say he is not going to withdraw from GSOMIA because he is going to put the national security of Korea and the alliance with the United States and trilateral coordination with the United States and Japan first,” Maxwell said.
He continued, “If he doesn’t, I think there will be further strain in the ROK-U.S. alliance … because I think the United States is going to remain very disappointed.”
Gary Samore, White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration, expects the GSOMIA issue to be resolved but said, “SMA is more difficult to resolve because [President Donald] Trump is asking for an unreasonable increase.”
Bennett thinks Seoul would not be able to meet the increased cost demand in SMA because of constraints in its defense budget.
“That’s a major hit and a major disruption of the alliance for South Korea to have to give up that much money,” he said. “I just don’t see that as being feasible. If you look at the defense budget, you can’t cut salaries. You can’t do much to cut operations and maintenance. Acquisition [for weapons] is what you’d have to cut to provide even one trillion won [$850 million], and there’s just no slack there.”
If Seoul does not renew GSOMIA with Tokyo against the U.S., and if Washington and Seoul do not come to a compromise on SMA by the deadline, experts believe South Korean national security could be at risk.
Consequences of Seoul’s permanent decision to terminate GSOMIA could have a far-reaching effect in a wartime crisis, Bennett said, because Japan plays a critical role in the U.S. military support for South Korea. He added GSOMIA is more than just for sharing intelligence during peacetime.
“If a war suddenly broke out, it gives us a vehicle through which other sensitive information about military operations and so forth could be shared. This is really about can the U.S. support Korea as well as it would like to given that it needs Japan’s assistance to do that?” Bennett said.
GSOMIA is particularly crucial, he said, when South Korea is expected to slash its military manpower by 2020 and American troops would need to be brought from the U.S. through Japanese military bases to reinforce military forces on the Korean Peninsula in wartime, which requires Seoul to share information with Tokyo.
“The question is: Does South Korea really want to delay the deployment of U.S. forces to South Korea when it’s also reducing its own ability to repel a North Korean invasion?” Bennett said.
The South Korean government said it will reduce the number of its troops to 500,000 by 2020. In 2018, it had 599,000 troops, and the number is expected to fall to 225,000 in 2025 because of the country’s declining fertility rate.
As a tradeoff, South Korea is looking into reforming its military to rely more on technologies such as unmanned aircrafts and weaponized drones.
However, this clashes with Washington’s demand that Seoul pay more for its share of defense costs, which Bennett said most likely needs to come out of Seoul’s defense budget marked for the research and development and acquisition of weapons. In that case, Seoul’s ability to devote funds to develop and purchase military technologies could be curtailed.
“Everything South Korea is trying to acquire are critical systems,” Bennett said. “It would be interesting to ask the Americans to propose what exactly [South] Korea should cut from its defense budget in order to provide the money that President Trump is asking because that puts it into more realistic terms.”
If the allies do not come to a comprise on SMA, Seoul faces a potential risk of U.S. troops being withdrawn from South Korea, Maxwell said.
If the SMA expires Dec. 31, U.S. forces in Korea will be not be able to function normally because military personnel will need to be diverted from their regular duties, such as performing military operations and trainings, to support logistics and administrative work provided by South Korean workers who will be furloughed, Maxwell said.
“If there is not an agreement, then we are in a real difficult situation because we cannot leave the U.S. military forces on the peninsula and not be able to train and maintain readiness,” he said. “The question is going to be how long will the U.S. government, the U.S. military in the U.S. government allow that to go on before they make a decision [to withdraw], which of course, is the most damaging thing to the alliance.”