Home > Opinion
  print button email button

Monday, June 18, 2012

Lost chance for Tokyo-Seoul security relations

Special to The Japan Times

HONOLULU — May promised to be an historic time in bilateral security relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK), aka South Korea, because they were set to sign two agreements enabling military cooperation.

Because of lingering disputes over Japan's acknowledged role in Korea before and during its occupation of the peninsula, the way its role is remembered, and its efforts to reconcile its past behavior, bilateral security relations have been governed and constrained by historical issues. The agreements signaled a determination by their political leaders to refrain from letting these historical problems dictate the pace of bilateral cooperation.

While the agreements did not mean that historical disputes would necessarily be shelved or resolved, they nevertheless demonstrated a necessary bold first step toward a "posthistory" security relationship: a relationship where history does not govern their bilateral security interactions.

Yet, proving the adage that one should never put the cart before the horse, the ROK suspended the signing of the agreements at the 11th hour, including the cancellation of a planned visit to Tokyo by Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin. What could have been a practical, forward-looking effort to strengthen relations between two vibrant democracies facing shared security challenges has instead become another casualty of the complexities of politics and history. Another opportunity is lost to take one small (albeit crucial) step forward in bilateral security relations.

At issue are two bilateral agreements. The first, called a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), would essentially allow the two countries to share confidential military intelligence, particularly on North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

The second, called an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), allows for logistical cooperation when their militaries are engaged in peacekeeping operations (PKOs) or humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) activities in the same country.

Specifically, the second agreement stipulates reciprocal provision of supplies such as food, water and fuel. It does not include Korean Peninsula contingencies, nor does it allow for the provision of weapons. Even if the ACSA would cover Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEO), this does not enable either military to intervene in the other country during a contingency. Instead, it makes NEOs easier for Seoul and Tokyo if they become necessary. Neither agreement would bind either country to come to the aid or defense of the other in an emergency.

Both agreements are critical. Because the GSOMIA enables both countries to share sensitive intelligence, as long as North Korea remains a threat both capitals benefit from closer intelligence sharing. Moreover, because both countries face missile threats from Pyongyang, a GSOMIA is crucial for them to develop some measure of trilateral missile defense cooperation. Further, because both countries engage in global PKO and HA/DR efforts and exist in the highly natural disaster-prone Asia-Pacific region, there are countless needs for logistical cooperation. Without an ACSA, these opportunities will be missed.

America wants its two allies to work closer together in the security realm. Yet, these two agreements in no way draw Japan and ROK into closer operational cooperation during regional contingencies under the U.S. alliance framework. At most, the agreements help connect America's two allies more systematically in very limited but important areas, thereby promoting broader trilateral cooperation and, by extension, greater regional stability.

Despite their practicality, Seoul poured cold water over these agreements. The primary reason is Seoul's political leadership caved to opposition party pressure and public opinion ambivalence that opposes military cooperation with Japan. The agreements are the first of their kind between the two neighbors since Japan's brutal colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula ended in 1945.

Because history is strongly intertwined with identity in ROK, the lingering historical disputes with Japan continue to govern bilateral security relations over practical security considerations. In addition, Seoul doesn't want to upset Beijing.

Both Japan and ROK are allies of the United States, a country that has long pushed for closer ROK-Japan bilateral security relations. Decision-makers in Seoul want to avoid the appearance that its policies are part of a U.S. containment strategy of China. After all, cooperation with Japan would link the third-leg in an alliance triangle that brings Washington-Tokyo-Seoul together.

The concern that an accord might be viewed as a containment effort has led Seoul to consider an ACSA with Beijing in to soften any possible Chinese backlash that an ACSA with Tokyo would cause.

History matters, but so do current security challenges. If ROK politicians promise to ensure the safety of their fellow Koreans, they cannot claim success if they let history or a potential backlash from a neighbor drive their decisions. They have a responsibility to ensure that all has been done to share intelligence on an existential threat and ensure logistical support for their troops when engaged in overseas operations. By postponing the agreements, ROK political leaders have signaled their intention to let history continue to govern security relations.

What is more, they miss an opportunity to try a new approach to bilateral security relations. Countries do not have to resolve their historical grievances before advancing their relations. After all, countries can utilize new methods of cooperation and confidence-building measures as a means to overcome mistrust and promote mutual understanding.

While movement on the agreements has been halted, there are still opportunities to move forward. With Japan still very much interested in the agreements, those who support the accords in ROK should do their utmost to convince those who oppose during this month's National Assembly session in Seoul.

If the delay continues into ROK's December presidential election, there is also a unique opportunity for the new president to signal a fresh start with Japan by signing the agreements.

Japan, for its part, has very little role to play in what is essentially a domestic political issue in ROK, although continued interest in the accords is crucial.

These accords are "low-hanging fruit," albeit with enormous benefits. Without bold political leadership to bring them back from postponement, they risk shriveling on the vine. Although opportunities still exist to rescue them, they are finite and may not come again in a long time.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Center, the U.S. Pacific Command or the U.S. Department of Defense.

Back to Top

About us |  Work for us |  Contact us |  Privacy policy |  Link policy |  Registration FAQ
Advertise in japantimes.co.jp.
This site has been optimized for modern browsers. Please make sure that Javascript is enabled in your browser's preferences.
The Japan Times Ltd. All rights reserved.