South Korea and the Trilateral Dilemma
Image Credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

South Korea and the Trilateral Dilemma

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The United States, South Korea (ROK), and Japan are currently negotiating a memorandum of understanding on sharing military intelligence. Until recently, South Korea has been reluctant to engage in any such discussions given the politically sensitive nature of its relationship with Japan. The agreement could still fail for a number of reasons: domestic politics in Korea, the potential repercussions of such cooperation on China’s attitude, or disagreements over the scope of future military cooperation. If the negotiations succeed, however, the agreement would be a significant first step in political and military cooperation among these countries.

President Barack Obama’s Asia tour in April demonstrated his intention to soothe the troubled relations between the close U.S. allies in Northeast Asia. The spats between South Korea and Japan over historical and territorial issues are an obstacle to Washington’s rebalancing plans. Obama sought to please each government during stopovers in Seoul and Tokyo, while pushing forward with plans to strengthen trilateral military cooperation.

While in Japan, Obama gave Shinzo Abe what the Japanese prime minister wanted: acknowledgement that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are Japanese territory. “Our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands,” said the president at a joint press conference with Abe on April 24. It is notable that Obama is the first incumbent U.S. president to have “overtly stated that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands fall within the purview of the U.S.-Japan security treaty.”

Nor did Obama disappoint South Korean President Park Geun-hye. At a joint press conference with Park, Obama said that “what happened to the comfort women here in South Korea” was “a terrible, egregious violation of human rights.” The two leaders also agreed to consider delaying the handover of the wartime operational control (OPCON) to South Korea, originally scheduled for December 2015. The U.S. government had pushed for Seoul to stick to the original target date for the OPCON transfer, but finally decided to accept South Korea’s request to delay it.

Obama also achieved one of his objectives. His administration was looking for an agreement on the sharing of military information with South Korea and Japan, which might constitute a first step towards a U.S.-led trilateral alliance in Northeast Asia. Washington has bilateral military intelligence pacts with Seoul and Tokyo, but the two neighbors do not have any officially institutionalized mechanism of military cooperation. The recent diplomatic tension between South Korea and Japan over historical issues such as Yasukuni Shrine visits and the 1993 Kono Statement has complicated the U.S. rebalance to Asia and made trilateral military cooperation unlikely for the foreseeable future.

In late March, however, Obama managed to get Park and Abe to sit together at a trilateral setting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague. It was the first top-level meeting between South Korea and Japan since Abe and Park took office in late 2012 and early 2013, respectively. Soon after, the U.S. successfully persuaded a reluctant ROK to join talks on a trilateral arrangement for sharing military information.

Washington and Tokyo do not have to deal with significant domestic opposition to trilateral military cooperation. In contrast, Seoul could face a great deal of domestic pressure to refuse to sign any type of agreement with Japan. This would not be unprecedented. For instance, in June 2012, former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak attempted to sign a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) that would have provided a legal framework for South Korea and Japan to share classified military data. The ROK government’s push for a bilateral military agreement with Japan backfired badly, as it was announced unexpectedly and without adequate public debate. Some critics were skeptical of the extent to which Japanese intelligence capabilities would benefit South Korea’s interests, since Japan relied heavily on the U.S. to collect critical military information. They also argued that South Korea had a lead on Japan in the field of human intelligence about North Korea, giving Seoul little to gain from any agreement. Others criticized the secretive and hasty way the ROK government handled this agreement. Even some members of the ruling party called on Lee to put off signing the agreement with Japan, worried about the repercussions for the presidential election in late 2012. Ultimately, the ROK government decided not to proceed.

For its part, the Park administration has not seriously addressed the issue of military cooperation with Japan. In late March this year, the ROK Defense Ministry denied it had any specific plan to work on the issue, saying that “intelligence-sharing among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan had been considered as an idea at the working-level stage, but nothing has been pushed ahead with ever since.”

However, about two weeks ahead of Obama’s visit, the ROK government changed its position, and started to openly support the trilateral MOU. “We believe that it is essential for South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. to share information about North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles,” said South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin before the National Defense Committee of the ROK’s National Assembly on April 9. He also stated that his government agreed on “the need to consider signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between related organizations in the three countries.”

Seoul’s positive signal on strengthening trilateral relations was immediately welcomed in Washington. One day later, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel expressed his appreciation for Kim’s support for the Defense Trilateral Talks between the U.S., the ROK and Japan by emphasizing the significance of cooperative measures to counter the threat posed by Pyongyang. After the Defense Trilateral Talks held in Washington D.C. in mid April, the Chief of Staff for the Secretary of Defense, Mark Lippert, (the next U.S. Ambassador to South Korea), ROK Deputy Minister for Policy of the Ministry of National Defense Yoo Jeh-seung, and Director-general of the Japanese Defense Ministry’s Defense Policy Bureau Hideshi Tokuchi reaffirmed that they would “not accept North Korea as a nuclear-armed state and agreed to closely coordinate to deter North Korean provocations,” although they did not specifically include a phrase directly related to sharing of military information in the joint statement. Later, on April 25 right after the U.S.-ROK summit, the ROK Defense Ministry informed journalists that it would review the trilateral MOU at the working-level and proceed with it transparently.

On May 31, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan held a defense ministerial meeting in Singapore on the occasion of the 13th Asia Security Summit (the Shangri-La Dialogue). U.S. Secretary of Defense Hagel, ROK Minister of National Defense Kim, and Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera discussed regional security issues including North Korean military provocations. They made it clear that their coordination would be based on sharing military information by reaffirming “the importance of information sharing on North Korean nuclear and missile threats.” But the three countries did not announce a specific action plan. “We need to discuss how, and to what extent, we will share information related to North Korean nuclear weapons and missiles. We are going to set up a working-level group to do this,” said an ROK Defense Ministry official on condition of anonymity.

This time, the ROK’s plan to sign the trilateral MOU has not provoked much debate or opposition in South Korea, in contrast with the fierce domestic reaction in 2012. The timing this year has played a role in this. Obama visited Seoul only ten days after the Sewol ferry disaster. That tragedy and the ROK government’s fumbled response overshadowed the news about the trilateral MOU in the South Korean media. South Korea’s local elections, held in early June, were a further distraction.

Moreover, the lessons in 2012 appear to have taught the ROK government to be more cautious with the public – this time, Seoul has not rushed into negotiations with Washington and Tokyo. At the trilateral defense ministerial meeting in Singapore last month, “the U.S. and Japan had hoped for more specificity in the joint press statement.” However, a final version of the joint statement did not go beyond stipulating “the importance of sharing information.” According to a senior official at the ROK Defense Ministry, “the South Korean position – that, because of negative domestic sentiment about military cooperation with Japan, these plans should be pursued with transparency only once conditions are right – was communicated to the U.S. and Japan.” The ROK government also stresses that “the trilateral MOU will be confined to the intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.” Limiting the scope of the MOU as well as bringing the U.S. into the equation is likely to lessen South Korea’s domestic opposition to ROK-Japan military cooperation.

Meanwhile, another question about the trilateral MOU has already arisen. The National Defense Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year 2015, which was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on May 22, would, if enacted, require  Hagel “to identify opportunities for increasing missile defense cooperation among the United States, Japan and the Republic of Korea” and “to evaluate such candidate areas as greater information sharing, systems integration and joint operations.” What’s more, the Wall Street Journal reported on May 27 that the U.S. had “conducted a site survey in South Korea for possible locations for a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery.” Park had previously mentioned that Korea’s air and missile defense (KAMD) would be “developed into an independent system” while collaborating with the U.S. “to enhance KAMD’s interoperability.” Nonetheless, this recent U.S. move worries some South Koreans who think the trilateral MOU would become a first stepping stone to South Korea’s participation in a U.S.-Japan missile defense system. They are also anxious that it could negatively affect Seoul’s relations with Beijing and draw South Korea into possible military conflicts between the U.S./Japan and China.

The success or failure of the U.S.-ROK-Japan trilateral MOU on sharing military information depends on Seoul’s bilateral relationship with Tokyo, but also on the transparency and trustworthiness of South Korea’s policies in the eyes of its own people. The lesson from South Korea’s failure in 2012 is clear: the issue of military cooperation with Japan first needs to be fully discussed with opposition parties and civil society. The Park administration has already experienced a domestic crisis of trust with the Sewol tragedy, perhaps making it harder for officials in Seoul to pursue any type of military cooperation with Japan without sufficient domestic support. The fact that the situation in Northeast Asia in 2014 is more complicated than it was in 2012 further limits South Korea’s choices.

Establishing trilateral military cooperation in the region will not be an easy task. Seoul will have to balance domestic concerns, security interests, and the expectations of the United States and Japan.

Se Young Jang is a Ph.D. candidate in International History at the Graduate Institute Geneva and currently a visiting scholar at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies, the George Washington University.

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