By Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea’s decision to scrap a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan has led to an increasingly public split with the United States, just when the allies face rising tensions with North Korea and new competition from China and Russia.
South Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young met U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris on Wednesday and asked that the United States’ tone down its public criticism of South Korea’s decision not to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan, according to a diplomatic source.
Cho called the U.S. criticism unhelpful and asked that Washington “refrain from giving such public messages”, the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A South Korean veterans group later cancelled a speech by Harris scheduled for Thursday, citing the “rapidly changing security circumstances”.
“As a security organisation, we wanted to hear about North Korea’s denuclearisation and the issues of the alliance from him, but we found the timing did not quite fit because all the attention is focused on the GSOMIA issue,” a group representative told Reuters.
A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul said he could not discuss the contents of private diplomatic conversations and referred questions back to the veterans group.
South Korea announced last week it would not renew GSOMIA, citing a “grave change” in the environment for bilateral security cooperation caused by Japan’s decision to remove South Korea’s fast-track trade export status.
Japanese officials have said South Korea’s decision showed a failure to appreciate the growing threat from North Korea.
Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya said on Tuesday bilateral and trilateral cooperation between Japan, South Korea, and the United States was crucial and urged Seoul to reconsider scrapping the ban before it officially expires in November.
U.S. officials had largely stayed on the sidelines of the spiralling dispute but expressed concern and disappointment with Seoul’s decision not to renew the GSOMIA pact. It also caught them off guard.
“In terms of the actual decision to not renew, we were not forewarned,” Randall Schriver, U.S. assistant secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, said on Wednesday.
The decision may reflect Seoul’s frustration with Tokyo, but the United States is concerned it is a sign that South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has a “serious misapprehension” about the security challenges in northeast Asia, Schriver said.
“The United States has repeatedly made clear to the Moon administration that this decision would have a negative effect, not only in the bilateral relationship with Japan, but on U.S. security interests and those of other friends and allies,” he said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
South Korea and Japan share a volatile history, including Japan’s colonial occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910-1945.
Many of the subsequent agreements made between them, including GSOMIA in 2016 and the 1965 treaty that normalised relations, were signed with U.S. backing but against strong domestic opposition from some South Koreans.
South Korea says the decision was unrelated to the alliance with the United States and trilateral cooperation with Japan. A defence ministry spokeswoman in Seoul said South Korea and the United States maintain close cooperation and there had been “sufficient” consultation before the GSOMIA announcement.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said on Wednesday he was “very disappointed” with the decision and hoped Seoul and Tokyo would overcome their differences to face common threats, such as North Korea and China.
There has been no impact on military operations so far but other intelligence-sharing arrangements are not as effective as bilateral pacts such as GSOMIA, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph Dunford said at a briefing with Esper in Washington.
South Korean and American officials publicly insist the alliance is “iron-clad”, but Moon has sometimes struggled to see eye-to-eye with U.S. President Donald Trump.
Trump recently renewed demands that South Korea pay more to help maintain some 28,500 U.S. troops stationed there, suggesting that South Korea was not paying its fair share.
An official at South Korea’s presidential Blue House also slammed American criticism of a recent military drill near islands that are also claimed by Japan as inappropriate interference.
(Reporting by Josh Smith and Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in WASHINGTON and Tim Kelly in TOKYO; Editing by Paul Tait)