History Intrudes on Korea-Japan Security Cooperation

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By Moon Young Jun – Sixty-seven years have passed since the last Japanese imperial soldier left the shores of the Korean peninsula, yet the South Korean bitterness towards the Japanese military remains palpable today. For the US, which has strong bilateral military alliances with both nations, this remains the biggest obstacle in formulating an effective trilateral security relationship in Northeast Asia. Despite their differences, Kim Jong-Il’s death in December 2011 and North Korea’s recent missile launches provided the impetus for these two nations to begin discussions on signing a military accord with each other. After months of negotiations, the two nations came to an agreement, but when it came time to sign the accord, emotional scars from the past created an impasse for the Korean government. 

Last May, the ROK defense ministry announced that it was finalizing a Korea-Japan military accord, which included both an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The ACSA stipulated a reciprocal arrangement of services and supplies while conducting overseas peacekeeping operations; the GSOMIA specified that the two militaries would share technology, tactical strategy, cryptographic codes, and code-deciphering systems. If a war were to break out, the GSOMIA would allow the two nations to share all relevant information with each other in order to develop a common wartime strategy.  

With its new “rebalancing” towards Asia, the US anticipated that this Korea-Japan GSOMIA would be a key aspect in its defense strategy in Northeast Asia, because it would allow the two nations to capitalize on their respective strengths in gathering intelligence. South Korea has a comparative advantage in collecting HUMINT (human intelligence) on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), while the Japanese navy gathers exceptional SIGINT (signals intelligence) on the North Koreans from its six AEGIS destroyers and 10 E-3A planes. More important, the conclusion of the GSOMIA would allow the US to work more effectively with its two allies in the Northeast Asian region, as it would no longer have to withhold intelligence that it received from the other nation.

However, the backlash against the agreement in Korea by both the public and the opposition party proved to be too great for Minister of Defense Kim Kwan-Jin to enact. Numerous public groups vowed to stop the agreement. The opposition party also was vocal in opposing the military accord, and argued that such an agreement should not be rushed, but discussed in the National Assembly (NA). Several days later, Defense Minister Kim Kwan-Jin announced that the signing of the military accord would not occur during President Lee Myung-Bak’s term and that the accord would be discussed in the NA.

Unbeknownst to the public, the Lee administration was working behind the scenes to push the agreement through. After the initial attempt to pass the GSOMIA failed, the MOFAT took a more furtive approach, and passed the newly renamed “security information agreement” through the Cabinet. They announced the agreement would be signed with the Japanese Defense Ministry on June 29th. Unfortunately, the president’s own ruling party members blocked the agreement, and domestic furor erupted over the secretive handling of the GSOMIA. Several officials, including the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, publicly apologized, and President Lee Myung-bak’s senior external policy secretary Kim Tae-hyo’s resigned. Despite these actions, the outrage over this incident has not subsided.

Now that the agreement has stalled, it is looking even more unlikely that it will pass during the Lee Myung-Bak’s administration. Despite his apparent continuing support for the agreement, President Lee Myung-Bak may not have the political capital to successfully lobby for it in the NA. With his brother’s recent indictment on bribery charges, Lee’s support rate is at 26.1 percent – its lowest in the last four months. Even conservatives, who support the passing of the GSOMIA, are criticizing the administration for quietly passing the agreement, rather than explaining to the public why it is necessary.

Given this public sentiment and the upcoming Korean presidential elections in December, the US and Japan should be realistic about the chances of approval of the GSOMIA in the near future. Antagonism towards the Japanese imperial military from the colonial era (1895-1945) and bitterness over the lingering comfort women issue from that period is not isolated to the opposition party, but is shared by many across the nation. Historical memory, as irrational and antiquated as it may appear to some Western and Japanese critics, is not just an integral part of Korean history, but also deeply embedded in the Korean national psyche. Even Presidential front-runner and New Frontier Party candidate Park Geun-Hye emphasized that this issue must be thoroughly discussed in the National Assembly Standing Committee now that it has convened. Based on her statements, it is unlikely that, if elected, she would deviate from the Korean public opinion to conclude the GSOMIA.  

Because of the Korean antagonism towards the Japanese military, Washington needs to realize that the successful conclusion of this agreement will be heavily dependent on other factors, including the ROK’s relationships with the DPRK and the PRC. The 2010 Cheonan sinking off the shores of Baek Ryeong Island and the artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island made the South Korean public acutely aware of the security threat that the DPRK poses. Even so, South Korean opinion on the DPRK remains more divided than views in the United States and Japan, as half of the public supports an engagement-oriented approach towards the North. Ultimately, it appears that, unless South Korean antagonism towards North Korea is heightened by further DPRK provocations, it is unlikely that the ROK-Japan GSOMIA will be endorsed by the National Assembly or receive the approval of the next Korean president.

Photo Credit: hojusaram via Wikimedia Commons;

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