When Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin meets with his Japanese counterpart Toshimi Kitazawa in Seoul on Jan 10—11, the two sides may sign their first-ever military agreements:
South Korea is considering signing its first military agreement with Japan by the end of this year at the earliest as part of efforts to boost bilateral military ties, a senior official at the Ministry of National Defense said Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
The official said that Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and his Japanese counterpart Toshimi Kitazawa will discuss the matter in a meeting, scheduled to be held in Seoul on Jan. 10 and 11.
However, he cautioned that the two countries may decide not to push ahead with the plan, if it triggers a public backlash or faces strong resistance from politicians in the process of fine-tuning the details.
The two agreements currently under consideration, reportedly, are a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA). The GSOMIA would allow the two sides to share military intelligence, particular in regards to North Korea’s nuclear and WMD programs. The ACSA, meanwhile, calls for cooperation in supplies and transportation, for example during an emergency or when Korean and/or Japanese troops are deployed overseas on peacekeeping operations. Whether this will apply in the event of an emergency on the Korean Peninsula, though, is unknown: from the Japan Times:
The ACSA stipulates mutual obligations on sharing food, water, fuel and necessary components as well as cooperation on transportation, maintenance and medical work. Details of operations are defined by each country’s laws.
Japan is hoping to seal the ACSA with South Korea in regard to international peacekeeping operations, relief activities and joint drills, the sources said.
Tokyo, however, has yet to decide whether the ACSA will be effective during emergencies on the periphery, such as on the Korean Peninsula, the sources said.
Korea has signed ACSA agreements with eight nations: Thailand, New Zealand, Turkey, the Philippines, Australia, Israel, Canada and the United States, the last which prefers to call it the Military Logistics Supporting Agreement (MLSA).
Now, as the Korea Times suggested, the agreements could “trigger a public backlash or face strong resistance from politicians.” Looking at tomorrow morning’s editorials, I’d say the possibility of this happening is quite high. Predictably, the left-leaning press doesn’t like this at all. The Hankyoreh said it knew why the United States and Japan wanted a three-way alliance with South Korea (missile defense, containing China), but such an alliance — and the Hani considers the upcoming meeting as the first step of a three-way alliance — might not be good for Korea (and I’m translating here):
Above all, there’s a high possibility that a triangle alliance between Korea, the United States and Japan would give North Korea the pretext to strengthen its nuclear deterrent. There is concern that it could backfire against the goal of denuclearizing North Korea. Protests from not only North Korea, but also China and Russia are expected. In particular, China, which has judged joint Korea—US drills in the West Sea as aimed at them, will increase its wariness against this move.
The United States and Japan are active regarding a triangle alliance because of their own strategic considerations. It is not desirable to us, however, for the strengthening of Korea–US—Japan military cooperation to bring about the strengthening of the North Korea-China-Russia alliance, with the Korean Peninsula becoming the stage for this power confrontation. Rather than reduce the security threat, this could increase it. This is why a careful approach is demanded regarding Korea—Japan military cooperation.
No editorial in the similarly leftist Kyunghyang Shinmun, but its article on the story is entitled “Opening the Way for Japanese Military Intervention in an Emergency on the Korean Peninsula,” which probably tells you all you need to know.
Even the conservative press is choosing its words very carefully. The Chosun Ilbo — which for a number of reasons you might expect to be most gung-ho about Korea-Japan security cooperation — says Seoul needs to be very clear about the goals of Korea-Japan military cooperation and what the two sides can cooperate on and what they can’t. It also said Seoul needs to be frank with the United States regarding the strategic goals of Korea-Japan military cooperation and its realistic limits. The Chosun expressed some of the same concerns as the Hani (again, I’m translating), too:
The reason why controversy is developing over the agreements the government is pushing with Japan is because the partner is Japan. When one considers Imperial Japan’s occupation of Korea and Tokyo’s claims over Dokdo, there cannot help but be doubts as to whether cooperating with Japan in even the military sector is the right thing. When there are recent signs that Northeast Asia is developing into a structure of confrontation between South Korea, the United States and Japan on one side and China and North Korea on the other, if direct military cooperation between Korea and Japan were to materialise, this structure [of confrontation] could solidify. It is also natural to keep in mind the position of China, which is Korea’s largest trading partner and, with the United States, the nation with the largest impact on Korean peace and unification. Speaking frankly, it’s hard to see how making Korea stand at the very front of a Northeast Asian structure of confrontation coincides with Korea’s mid to long-term interests.
The Chosun does take North Korea to task, however, for giving outside countries the excuse to comment on and exert influence on the Korean Peninsula, and called the “Kim Il-sung/Kim Jong-il group” an “anti-juche (self-reliance) and anti-national group.” Heh.
Another one of Korea’s major conservative papers, the JoongAng Ilbo, was a bit more keen on the idea of Korea-Japan cooperation. Of course, they, too, said the matter needed to be approached with caution, and expressed concern about provoking a new Cold War structure on the Korean Peninsula. They also worried that the public believed Japan was using recent tensions on the Korean Peninsula to boost the role of the Japan Self-Defense Force, and that American enthusiasm for trilateral military cooperation was not just to deter North Korea, but to contain China. At the same time, it acknowledged there might be the need for some degree of military cooperation with Tokyo, and even went as far as to spell it out:
Japan, which already operates three recon satellites, has the recon capacity to distinguish even 60cm object on the Earth’s surface. If it completes its four-satellite system next year, Japan will be able to keep the entire Korean Peninsula, including North Korea, under 24-hour surveillance. For us, who have to prepare for the possibility of additional North Korean provocations, a third nuclear test or missiles launches, there is a helpful side to sharing intelligence with Japan. There’s also the problem that while Korea and the United States have a GSOMIA, as do Japan and the United States, Korea and Japan do not. If the ACSA is concluded, Korea will be able to receive from Japan needed supplies and services if Korean forces meet with an accident while training in open waters close to Japan, and the two countries’ militaries can share supplies when they are deployed overseas for peacekeeping operations. This is why we agree with the need for military cooperation with Japan at a low stage.
What I can’t wait to see is the reaction from North Korea. If you’re a fan of North Korean rhetoric, mark the South Korea—Japan defense ministers’ meeting on your calendar, because if anything even resembling a South Korean-Japanese military accord is signed, it could inspire Pyongyang to rhetorical heights the likes of which the world has never seen.