Seoul fears US is delaying envoy’s approval in retaliation for scrapping of security pact, sources say

09-Oct-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

South Korea has waited two months for the US government’s approval of its appointed ambassador to Washington, raising concern that the US is delaying its nod in retaliation for Seoul’s abandonment of a security pact with Japan.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in appointed diplomat-turned-lawmaker Lee Soo-hyuck to the post of envoy to Washington in early August.

Two weeks later, Seoul announced its decision not to extend the general Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Tokyo, touching off a rare diplomatic row with the US, its long-time ally.

In an unprecedented protest from Washington, John Rood, the US undersecretary of defence for policy, on Thursday urged Seoul to renew the pact, saying it was “indispensable” to counter China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Lee Soo-hyuck was named as Seoul’s ambassador to Washington in early August.(Today)

Lee Soo-hyuck was named as Seoul’s ambassador to Washington in early August.(Today)

South Korea’s terminating the pact is generally seen as denting the US-South Korea-Japan alliance and weakening the US’ influence in northeast Asia while boosting China’s regional clout.

Signed in 2016, the pact enabled three-way intelligence gathering between the US and its two major regional allies.

But Seoul’s planned termination of GSOMIA indicated that bilateral relations between South Korea and the US had hit “turbulence”, former senior Pentagon official David Shear said last month in an interview with Japanese media.

Bilateral ties between South Korea and the US stretch back nearly 75 years to the end of the Second World War and America’s fighting on South Korea’s side in the Korean war.

But relations between South Korea and Japan began to deteriorate late last year following a diplomatic row over compensation for wartime forced labourers during Japan’s occupation of Korea.

They soured further when Japan tightened its curbs on exports of hi-tech materials needed by South Korea’s chip industry, and again in August when Tokyo said it would remove South Korea’s fast-track export status.

That two months have passed and the US government has not yet given Lee’s appointment diplomatic approval contrasts sharply with the progression of Cho Yoon-je, the current South Korean ambassador to the US, whose appointment was approved in 43 days.

The US State Department declined to comment on the slow progress of approval for Lee.

But a diplomatic source close to Lee, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the South China Morning Post that diplomatic circles in Seoul are “deeply concerned” about the US government’s slowness in approving the appointment, with some suggesting it was Washington’s way of exacting revenge on Seoul for scrapping GSOMIA.

Oh Shin-hwan, a member of South Korea’s National Assembly, last week urged the South Korean presidential Blue House to explain “why the approval is being delayed” and suggested Seoul’s decision not to extend GSOMIA had hurt South Korea-US relations.

But several US analysts dismissed the revenge theory, blaming the delay on the state of American domestic politics.

Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean Studies at the Centre for the National Interest in Washington, said he saw no connection between the delay and “some sense of anger on the Trump administration at Seoul for recent challenges involving Japan”.

“There is clearly worry at the State Department and in the halls of the White House, but I doubt Washington would hold up a diplomatic appointment in some sort of retaliation,” Kazianis said in an interview.

“Clearly Washington has made its discomfort known albeit privately to both Tokyo and Seoul. However, this is something that will not impact ties between America and its two most important allies.”

Although GSOMIA made intelligence-sharing among the three allies work faster and smoother, “having the agreement collapse is not a game-changer more like a complicator”, Kazianis said.

“My guess is the inner workings of the US government have bigger concerns like the potential impeachment of the president.”

US President Donald Trump is in the midst of an impeachment inquiry after asking Ukraine’s president to investigate his political opponent, former vice-president Joe Biden, and Biden’s son Hunter.

A South Korean senior diplomat in the US, who asked for anonymity, supported Kazainis’ view, saying that he is “confident” that approval for the South Korean ambassador would be granted within a few days.

Another revenge-view sceptic was Kristine Lee, an associate fellow for the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Centre for a New American Security, a bipartisan Washington think tank.

“I do not think [the delay] is expressly and exclusively due to the US government’s discomfort with the breakdown of GSOMIA,” Lee said.

“It is more likely due to the need for the US government to conduct all of the necessary due diligence for the approval of an ambassador who will inherit an immensely important portfolio, ranging from liaising with Washington on negotiations with North Korea to broader issues of alliance management.

“GSOMIA is one narrow slice of the equation, but certainly not a deciding factor vis-a-vis the state of the agrement,” Lee said, using the international affairs term for a state’s agreement to receive members of a diplomatic mission from a foreign country.

But Lee said Washington needed to become more active in mediating South Korea-Japan tensions if it wanted to avoid speculation like this in the future.

“Beyond simply expressing discomfort with the breakdown of GSOMIA through indirect diplomatic means, the Trump administration should, through higher-profile efforts, bring the two sides closer together and at least begin a process of formalised dialogue [to manage] tensions over the near-term future.”



Category: Korea

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