By terminating its bilateral intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, South Korea risks sending the wrong message — that the trilateral alliance of South Korea, the US and Japan is weak — Gen. Robert Abrams, commander of the US-ROK Combined Forces Command, said Tuesday.
Marking his first year in office, Abrams, who also commands United States Forces Korea and the United Nations Command, spoke on a series of current issues, including the ongoing defense cost-sharing negotiations and the alliance, during a joint press interview.
“The fundamental principle of the information-sharing agreement was a clear message to the region that the Republic of Korea and Japan put aside, perhaps, historical differences and put at the forefront the stability and security of the region, because together we are much stronger for providing a stable and secure Northeast Asia,” Abrams said in the interview at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province.
“And without that, there is a risk of sending a wrong message that perhaps we are not as strong.”
In August, the South Korean government announced it would pull out from the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan, following a series of export controls Tokyo imposed on key industrial materials for Seoul.
The ongoing row between the two neighboring countries stems from last year’s rulings by South Korea’s top court, which ordered Japanese companies to compensate South Korean victims of wartime forced labor. After filing complaints, Japan brought the issue into the military and trade realms.
Abrams’ remark reiterates the position of the US, which played a role in facilitating GSOMIA when it was signed in 2016. With the intelligence-sharing pact due to expire at midnight on Nov. 23, US officials are calling for its renewal.
The South Korean government has maintained that it will only reconsider its decision if Japan first normalizes trade.
On the defense cost-sharing deal that is currently being negotiated between South Korea and the US, Abrams said South Korea should contribute more, highlighting that the money ultimately goes back into the South Korean economy.
Since 1991, Seoul has shouldered part of the costs of maintaining US troops stationed here under the Special Measures Agreement. The agreement mandates that South Korea pay in part for USFK to hire South Korean civilians, for the construction of military facilities to maintain the allies’ readiness and for other forms of support.
“The money ROK contributes are paying Koreans, they support us logistically or to build new facilities, to support US Forces Korea,” he said. ROK refers to the official name of South Korea, the Republic of Korea.
“So I want to be clear, that money is going right back into the Korean economy and to the Korean people. It’s not coming to me,” he said.
Abrams said he agrees with a recent statement by US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris — that the South Korean government can and should pay more.
Commenting on the criticism many South Koreans have leveled against the US for demanding the increase, Abrams said the governments of South Korea and the US should do a better job of informing taxpayers about the defense cost-sharing deal.
While the administration of President Moon Jae-in is working together with the US to transfer wartime operational control authority to South Korea during its term, Abrams stressed that the wartime OPCON transfer depends on certain conditions being met.
“There are three conditions, we put it in writing in 2015, and now both sides have been working steadily to meet those conditions,” Abrams said. “We’ve made more progress in the last year than we had in the previous three years. And we have work to do.”
“So it’s not based on time, it’s based on conditions.”
The three conditions for wartime OPCON transfer are Seoul’s capability to lead the allies’ combined defense mechanism; its capacity for initial responses to the North’s nuclear and missile threats, and a stable security environment on the peninsula and in the region.
“If you look at the full arc of the ROK-US alliance since the 1950, we’ve had our ups and downs historically, and on the back end of the downsides, we always come out stronger and more resilient, and tighter,” he said.
“I have supreme confidence ROK military leadership will lead us in the future.”