Japan and South Korea were on the verge of signing a landmark military cooperation pact yesterday. This was meant to be the moment when Seoul and Tokyo decided to prioritize the needs of the future over the troubles of the past. But at the last minute the deal was off, sunk by the weight of history.
The two countries have of course long been on the same geopolitical ‘side’: they are the U.S.’s two most important Asian allies, two of the region’s strongest democracies, and two of its most advanced economies.
Though economic ties have flourished, any kind of Japan-Korea defense deal seemed inconceivable. That such a pact was even being considered gave observers high hopes that times had changed. The two countries saw clear benefits in sharing military intelligence, with the North Korean threat and the rise of China taking precedent over the past.
But the issue of Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea has remained highly problematic, especially as Korean ‘comfort women’ have continued to campaign for reparations for their mistreatment at the hands of the Japanese military. There is also sensitivity over the disputed Dokdo/Takeshima islands, which South Korea controls but Japan claims. Even as Seoul was preparing to sign the new pact with Tokyo, Korean lawmakers paid a visit to Dokdo this week as if to signal that making progress with Japan in some areas will not mean backsliding in others.
Nonetheless, it is the mark of an increasingly mature relationship that Seoul felt able to decouple these issues from its security diplomacy with the Japanese. Korean media commentary of the agreement was broadly favorable, with criticism focusing more on the government’s decision to approve the pact on its own initiative without consulting the National Assembly.
The Lee Myung-bak administration’s preference for a back-room deal rather than a public debate suggested that it was nervous about the country’s reaction in an election year in South Korea. Now, with the deal having faltered, this approach appears to have been a tactical error, with the press largely accepting the pact with Japan but scathing about the government’s methods in getting it signed. The administration “wanted to handle this hot potato as furtively as possible,” noted one unimpressed commentator.
In the end, this criticism clearly undermined the government’s confidence. At the eleventh hour, Seoul informed Japan it needed more time to explain the implications of the deal to the general public, and also to square it with lawmakers.
The Lee administration is of course highly sensitive to the fact that mistrust of Japan lingers on, with some Korean lawmakers clearly uncomfortable about Tokyo’s recent decision to tweak its Basic Law to make “national security” one of the objectives of its nuclear program. It’s true that this change makes the prospect of Japanese nuclear weapons ever so slightly less remote. But the conclusion of one lawmaker that Japan now “intends to go nuclear” is hardly supported by the evidence.
In a more sensible analysis, a nuclear-armed Japan is not one of the contingencies that South Korea is likely to have to confront. A belligerent North Korea, and an increasingly assertive China – with which Seoul also disputes island territories – are more realistic concerns. These are also the main concerns for a Japanese military that has some cutting-edge surveillance and information-gathering capabilities. South Korea can enhance its own security by deciding to tap into them.
For this reason, it must be hoped that South Korea’s pact with Japan has only been delayed, and not sacrificed to history.