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Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012

Thinking through Japan-ROK security relations

Special to The Japan Times

HONOLULU / WASHINGTON — On June 22-23, the United States, Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea) and Japan held trilateral naval exercise in the waters south of the Korean Peninsula. Their three navies had conducted joint exercises in the past, but this was the first time the ROK agreed to let Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) participate in an area close to the Korean Peninsula.

While the scope of the exercise was limited to an operation relevant to humanitarian assistance in a maritime disaster, it signaled that security relations between U.S. allies Japan and ROK may be getting closer.

This potential for closer security cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul followed news that Seoul was ready to sign a General Security of Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and an Acquisition and Cross-Service Agreement (ACSA) with Tokyo. The GSOMIA would set protocol for sharing intelligence between Korean armed forces and Japan's Self-Defense Forces (SDF), ending the decades-old cumbersome habit of Tokyo and Seoul sharing information through the U.S. The ACSA would allow the militaries of the two not only to provide logistic support such as fuel, water, food and medical goods but also to transport such items and conduct repairs of each other's equipment.

In short, both agreements would facilitate smoother cooperation between the SDF and ROK military in case of various emergencies.

Less than a month later, however, the relationship between Tokyo and Seoul is strained again. Trouble began with strong opposition within South Korea — most vocal being civic organizations that support Korean victims of "comfort women" (women who were forced to provide sexual services to Imperial Japanese soldiers during World War II) — against Seoul's forging closer security relations with Tokyo. Protests by Japanese legislators and a senior Japanese diplomat against "comfort women" memorials in small towns in New Jersey and New York further aggravated anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea — so much so that it became politically impossible for Lee Myung Bak's government to conclude GSOMIA and ACSA with Japan.

Anti-Japanese sentiment driven by personal anger that the Japanese government has not done enough to atone for its wartime past is understandable, particularly among those who were directly impacted by the actions of Japan's Imperial soldiers. Inflammatory remarks and provocative behavior by some conservative Japanese political leaders and intellectuals certainly aggravate this sentiment.

To be fair, the Japanese government has made efforts to squarely face its wartime past, efforts that often go unrecognized or are criticized as insufficient. Following years of various types of apologies by politicians and prime ministers, in 1995, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a statement that expressed a "feeling of deep remorse" for Japan's wartime behavior. This statement became the government's official position on its wartime past.

Also in 1995, the Japanese government established the Asia Women Fund, a quasi-public relief fund that attempted to provide compensation and other assistance to "comfort women" victims. A handwritten apology by the sitting prime minister was also included to those who received compensation. The Fund took on various projects until funds were exhausted; it closed its doors in 2007. Concerning Korea specifically, the Japanese and South Korean governments agreed on the settlement of Japan's wartime past by signing the Japan-ROK Basic Agreement in 1965.

Almost 30 years later, during his visit to Tokyo, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung responded to Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's expression of a "keen sense of apology and remorse" by saying he would look to build a "future-oriented" relationship with Japan. And since the current ruling Democratic Party of Japan came into office in 2009, its leaders have vowed not to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine and have returned some 1,200 volumes of historical Korean royal documents looted during Japan's annexation of the Peninsula.

Despite what appears to be decades of forward progress, recent developments show that no forward momentum to relations between the two. Instead, they remain trapped in the legacy of the past, and security relations at an impasse.

The security environment in East Asia is anything but stagnant. It is dynamic and moving in the direction that necessitates closer mutual security cooperation. Today, the future of North Korea — not just the future of its nuclear program but also the fate of the regime in Pyongyang under Kim Jong Un — is more unpredictable than ever.

China continues to modernize its military capabilities while it has become considerably more assertive in the contested waters of the East and South China Seas. Russia, too, is looking to increase its Far East presence, necessitating a modernization of its Pacific Fleet. Closer Japan-ROK security relations could help ensure regional stability at this a time. They would also be a great asset to broader global security issues.

From nuclear nonproliferation to humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR), Japan and South Korea are often key states that have a demonstrated capability to lead efforts to develop a global response capacity. Holding closer security relations hostage to issues of the past — as important as they may be for those who were victimized — is unwise. So is politicizing the history issue to the extent that it makes it impossible for Tokyo and Seoul to discuss and act in unison on shared security challenges.

As two mature democracies, Japan and South Korea should be able to find ways to proceed pragmatically toward a closer security ties while continuing dialogue on their disagreements over how to address issues such as "comfort women" and the Takeshima/Tokdo territorial dispute.

Given that Tokyo and Seoul are unable to deepen their security relations bilaterally, the trilateral framework may be the better option for now. The establishment of the U.S.-Japan-South Korea "consultative body" to discuss global issues, agreed upon by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba and ROK Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kim Sung Hwan at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on July 12, is one such example.

Yet, if this is the best means forward, the U.S. must remain neutral in the historical disagreements between its two allies. Choosing the side of one ally over the other will sow seeds of distrust with the U.S., and the resulting schism will serve no positive benefit to U.S. alliance relations with Japan and ROK. Rather, it benefits only potential adversaries of the U.S.

Despite small steps forward, a deeper Japan-ROK security cooperation remains a distant goal for the two governments. The U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral framework may benefit Japan and ROK's efforts to facilitate their security cooperation for the short term. But East Asian geography requires that Japan and ROK, as democratic neighbors in a contested regional security environment, tackle bilateral security cooperation sooner rather than later.

The challenge is in whether politicians in both countries can not only explain why such cooperation is indispensable to their own public but also to take the pragmatic steps to ensure its fruition.

Tokyo and Seoul missed a great opportunity this time. It is imperative they do not miss the next one.

Yuki Tatsumi [ytatsumi@stimson.org] is a senior associate at the Stimson Center, Washington D.C. Jeffrey W. Hornung [hornungj@apcss.org] is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. The views expressed here are those of the authors.

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