Commentary Paper n°5 – Japan – ROK Military Agreement : Still a long way to go

Japan – ROK Military Agreement : Still a long way to go

Géraldine Frébutte
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Since last week, the South Korean government has faced up to an political and diplomatic predicament, with serious consequences on the domestic level. The reason of this strained atmosphere is the announcement of a military pact between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which has caused a general outcry within the public opinion. The Lee Myung-bak administration is now trying to calm down the popular protest, while it is dealing with internal tensions between Ministers and officials. How can we explain this political crisis?

On Tuesday, June 28th, details about the imminent signing of a Japan – South Korea pact were leaked in the press. The media revealed that the South Korean government was ready to share military information with its Japanese neighbour, but tried to conceal this agreement from the population, because of its extremely sensible potential[1]. There were immediate consequences : public demonstrations were held in Seoul, civic activists warned that this project would generate an anti-Japan sentiment, and the opposition parties disapproved openly the governmental conduct. As a result, South Korea was forced to postpone the signing of the military pact, expected to take place on Friday, June 29th. Since then, the government has launched an investigation, led by the presidential office, in order to shed light on the mishandling of this case[2].

The Korean deal with Japan, called “General Security of Military Information Agreement”, is not yet something new in South Korean foreign policy. The country has already shared this kind of agreement with 12 countries, including the United States and Russia. The primary aim of this military pact is intelligence-sharing between Seoul and Tokyo, allowing both countries to swap information with each other about North Korea’s nuclear program and Chinese military power. Recent events, like the North Korea’s rocket launch attempt in last April, are behind the sudden appearance of this agreement, as a senior government official explains : “[The need for South Korea and Japan to share military intelligence] became clear each time North Korea tested a nuclear weapon or launched a long-range missile, but the lack of an accord made that impossible. We decided to rush things.”[3]

Nevertheless, the urgent feature of this agreement is not obvious for everyone, and the South Korea’s National Assembly doesn’t tolerate to be put on the sidelines, forcing the government to debate with the opposition lawmakers. In fact, this political and diplomatic case illustrates two typical constraints which press on the definition of South Korea’s foreign policy in its regional environment.

Nationalism, public opinion and South Korea’s foreign policy

The Japan – South Korea military pact is a particularly sensitive issue because of historic disputes, which tend to slow cooperation between the nations down. In South Korea, the population is still deeply affected by warfare memories and consequences of Korea’s Japanese colonization. Unresolved problems sometimes induce diplomatic tensions between these countries : territorial disputes[4], “confort women” issue[5] or divergent historic interpretations. These past events are firmly rooted in South Korean collective memory and lead to public demonstrations and media-staged controversies in case of misunderstanding between the two neighbours.

Even if ROK – Japan relations have considerably improved for a few years[6], historic and territorial disputes always damage their bilateral ties. This can in part be explained by South Korea’s nationalist responses to Japanese political moves, which are immediately seen as insults to Korean population and potential threats. In fact, South Korea’s nationalism towards Japan can be described as a “reactive” one : “Reactive nationalism can be defined as the collective expression of nationalist sentiments toward external stimuli that undermine national identity or interests. […] Reactive nationalism mostly involves spontaneous and voluntary mass participation, but from time to time, it can be amplified by the ruling elite for domestic political purposes.”[7]

Therefore, this kind of nationalism rests on the significant involvement of the population in foreign policy issues. In South Korea, public opinion has become a substantial component of the development of diplomatic actions and reactions towards other states in the region. Interest groups and activist movements prove to be particularly active in case of diplomatic tensions, while opinion polls steadily give information about South Koreans’ general sentiments towards neighbouring countries. This external support can be a considerable advantage for political leaders, but in this special case, it has turned out to be a heavy imposition that the South Korean government attempted to avoid. The reason is that this internal constraint goes against demands of South Korea’s external environment.

The considerable presence of the United States

The shadow of the United States hovers over the military agreement between South Korea and Japan. Last week, a anonymous governmental source explained : “Washington had proposed joint military drills for Korea, the U.S. and Japan for years, and the information sharing agreement is something the U.S. had been asking for in the same context.”[8] Such a pact could not only put pressure on North Korea, but also strengthen ties between Japan, ROK, and the United States in order to keep watch on China. “A cooperative relationship between South Korea and Japan, both U.S. treaty allies, and among the three countries is in U.S. interests because it arguably enhances regional stability, helps coordination over North Korea policy, and boosts each country’s ability to deal with the strategic challenges posed by China’s rise.”[9]

Allied to the United States since nearly 60 years, South Korea has to take into account strategic developments suggested by its partner, a global power which tries to impose itself in East Asia. In that sense, U.S.– Korea alliance takes the form of “supplier – client” relationship, where South Korea is dependant of changes wanted by the United States. But on the other hand, the development of South Korean nationalism and national pride leads to feelings of independent destiny within ROK population. As a result, political elites in South Korea attempt to work its way towards a balanced foreign policy, in view of internal and external constraints that they have to face.

[1] “Cabinet Approves Military Pact With Japan”, in The Chosun Ilbo, June 28th, 2012.

[2] “South Korea probes mishandling of military pact with Japan amid uproar”, in Yonhap News Agency, July 4th, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The territorial claims about the Dokdo/Takeshima Island illustrate this issue.

[5] “Beginning in the 1930s, as the Japanese army marched through Asia, women were recruited to serve as prostitutes on the front lines. Some of these women were Japanese; others were from Korea and other occupied territories. Estimates of the number of comfort women range from 50,000 to several hundred thousand.” OH, K., “The United States between Japan and Korea : keeping alliances strong in East Asia”, in The Korean Jounral of Defense Analysis, Vol. 22, n°2, June 2010, p. 135.

[6] Economic, cultural and even political ties have tended to become more and more extensive for the last decades.

[7] MOON, C., LI, C., “Reactive Nationalism and South Korea’s Foreign Policy on China and Japan : A Comparative Analysis”, in Pacific Focus, Vol. 25, n°3, December 2010, p. 335.

[8] “The Story Behind the Korea-Japan Military Pact”, in The Chosun Ilbo, June 29th, 2012.

[9] MANYIN, M., CHANLETT-AVERY, E., NIKITIN, M., “U.S. – South Korea Relations”, in CRS Report for Congress, November 28th, 2011.