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US-Japan Defense Accord Upsets Seoul

Japan and South Korea are each close with the United States and could be strong allies, after adequate atonement and forgiveness for historical atrocities. But instead the gulf is widening, as indicated by a terse exchange between the two leaders attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, suggests journalist Shim Jae Hoon. The most recent point of contention: US-Japan Defense Cooperation guidelines will be renegotiated, likely strengthening Japan’s independent military capability, allowing new interpretations of the Japanese constitution which prohibits rearmament and perhaps even making the nation a US proxy for regional security. South Korea, alarmed by lack of notice, fears a new arrangement could limit its own strategic options and decrease leverage with China on handling North Korea. The US also negotiated agreements with South Korea. South Koreans worry that the US, with so many budgetary challenges, is relinquishing its leadership role in the region. The US president did not attend the APEC summit, but China's did. China’s President Xi assured South Korea’s President Park that it can control North Korea. – YaleGlobal

US-Japan Defense Accord Upsets Seoul

South Korea fears that US may set up Japan as responsible for regional security
Shim Jae Hoon
YaleGlobal, 10 October 2013
Regional reordering: Japan's Prime Minister Abe, center in top photo, celebrates with US and Japanese officials plan to reopen US-Japanese Defense Cooperation guidelines - with no heads up for South Korean President Park, who gave Abe a cold shoulder at the APEC summit

SEOUL: The front-page picture in Korean newspapers told the story of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

South Korea’s President Park Geun Hye, looking frosty and gazing in the opposite direction, ignored Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe standing next to her at the October 7 APEC in Bali. The two leaders barely exchanged greetings, according to a Japanese news dispatch, and kept their contact to a minimum, “only for a few seconds.”

The awkward encounter was emblematic of widening gulf between two crucial East Asian neighbors, unable to settle age-old differences over past history, even as their security environment worsens with China’s territorial assertiveness and North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

But it was not just bilateral issues dividing them. Broadening US security ties with Japan is fueling resentment in South Korea that the US is eroding Seoul’s strategic options by beefing up Japan. The October 3 US-Japanese agreement to revise their defense cooperation guidelines next year has raised the specter of Washington drastically strengthening Japan’s independent military capability. This prompts concerns in Seoul that Japan, an ancient foe, may assume greater responsibility for regional defense on behalf of the United States. South Korea analysts fear that their country might once again become the proverbial shrimp caught between two Asian whales – Japan and China.  

Such a prospect evokes unpalatable memories of Japanese invasions, occupation and brutalities – smack in the face of nuclear threats from the North. Increased Japanese responsibility not only augurs negatively for Seoul’s independent strategic space but interferes with Seoul’s attempt to forge stronger ties with China and use Beijing’s leverage in containing North Korea’s nuclear capability.

The US is shifting more responsibility to South Korea, too.

South Korea is worried that Japan may assume responsibility for regional defense on behalf of the US.

During his four-day trip to Seoul for assessment of North Korea’s military capability, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a series of steps that would bolster the bilateral military alliance. His visit came against the backdrop of increasing US commitment for the defense of South Korea, which hosts 28,500 US troops. In their assessment of South Korean capability, Hagel and Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan Jin came close to agreement on delaying the transfer of command authority of the combined forces to a Korean general in 2015. They also signed a new “strategic framework” authorizing what Korean officials described as “preemptive attack” on the North’s nuclear facility in the event of a nuclear or missile attack against the South.

Then, Hagel traveled to Tokyo on October 3. Joined by US Secretary of State John Kerry, Hagel signed an agreement calling for revision of the US-Japan Defense Cooperation guidelines next year. The Obama administration did not consult Seoul on the decision to beef up the Japanese military capability. The angst in Seoul was exacerbated by the fact that the agreement came in the midst of the Abe government seeking what it called collective self-defense, which would allow Japan to consider an attack on its ally as attack on itself. That not only would make Japan a significant military force in the region, it would necessarily involve reinterpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution that prohibits its rearmament.

The new guidelines clearly target North Korea with its nuclear arms and missile launches. Although China wasn’t mentioned in the agreement, the guidelines suggest that China is becoming a new source of tension for Japan over territorial claims for nearby islets called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.

The US did not consult Seoul on the decision to beef up the Japanese military capability.

The prospect of being sandwiched between a military superpower of China to the north and an unrepentant former colonial power, newly arming itself with help from the United States, discomfits Seoul. The strategy also interferes with President Park’s policy of forging better relations with Beijing, which has considerable leverage over North Korea. At the same time, China is also a massive economic partner for South Korea, claiming a quarter of the country’s global trade volume. 

In contrast to frosty relations with Tokyo, Chinese President Xi Jinping at APEC offered more assurance of China’s involvement in keeping North Korea under control. Meeting on the sidelines of summit, Xi assured Park that China not only banned a long list of export items that the North could use for developing its nuclear weapons technology, he declared Beijing stood “resolutely” against another nuclear test by the North. Indeed, he promised, China will scrupulously adhere to the UN Security Council resolution keeping North Korea under strict sanctions.

In short, China is going an extra mile to woo South Korea, in the hope of keeping the latter neutral if not on its side in the current competition for influence in East Asia.

South Korea is disconcerted over the US policy of beefing up US-Japan alliance without regards to Seoul’s geopolitical interests. When Hagel met with Park on October 1 and asked if it wasn’t time for Seoul to mend relations with Tokyo, Park is reported to have sharply responded: “I understand the importance of Korea-Japan relations, but it’s Japan that’s constantly rubbing salt to our wounds (of past history).”

China’s President
Xi Jinping offered assurances of keeping North Korea under control.

The testy response notwithstanding, she has little choice. She cannot reject US or Japanese overtures at this stage unless Beijing takes full control of forcing Pyongyang to give up its nuclear arms. Nor is it wise for Seoul to try and keep Tokyo and Washington apart in the face of Beijing’s aggressive territorial stance. A good indication of this strategic dilemma was Seoul’s agreement to hold a trilateral military exercise in Korean waters, October 8 to 10, involving the aircraft carrier USS George Washington and warships from Japan and South Korea.

For all that, the prospect of cobbling a strong trilateral alliance will not be smooth. Seoul is suspicious of Washington’s design of giving Japan a bigger role in the defense of East Asia. A lingering suspicion here is that Washington is building Japan as the next defense linchpin as the US faces steady cuts in defense spending. “The US is outsourcing its anti-China policy to Japan,” announced a front-page headline in the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper on October 6 shortly after Hagel’s Tokyo agreement.  

South Korean officials here are particularly unhappy over Hagel’s failure to notify them in advance about signing the defense guidelines in Tokyo. “The situation is really messy,” says Park Jin, former parliamentary foreign affairs committee chairman, commenting on Seoul’s dilemma. Instead of unilaterally beefing up Japan’s military capability, he thinks the US should have worked harder to bring Japan and South Korea closer by soothing old historical wounds. One straightforward apology on the issue of “comfort women” – women and girls forced into prostitution for Japanese troops during World War II – would go a long way to improve the bilateral situation, he says. “We were hoping President Obama to take up this role of an honest broker before [these] Tokyo guidelines,” said Park Jin.

He was not alone in expressing the fear that the US is relinquishing its leadership role in the face of ongoing budgetary constraints.  


Shim Jae Hoon is a Seoul-based journalist.

Rights:Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

Comments on this Article

15 October 2013
Japan's upgrading of defense capabilities has been done in full consultation and exchange of views with the United States. These efforts have been welcomed by East Asian countries, of course not by China and, it seems, by South Korea. Japanese know that preserving and defending liberal order in this part of the world is far beyond the power of Japan alone to do or far beyond "Japan's independent military capability" as Mr. Hoon says.
China's influence in this area has diminished in spite of its desire. Most East Asian countries "as varied as Australia and Myanmar have acted to resist Chinese pressures, often by seeking closer relations with the United States, but also with the Russian Federation. Only in South Korea has Chinese influence increased instead of declining, not least because of a South Korean cultural prdisposition to servility toward China and the Chinese (E. Luttwak, The Rise of China vs. The Logic of Strategy.)" In the Yi dynasty of Korea kings had meet to the Chinese envoys from Beijing at the City Gate of Seoul (Isabella Bird said that she had never seen a more filthy capital of a nation than Seoul before she went to see Beijing) by prostrating themselves on the ground and kowtowing to show deference. Are South Korean thinking the US a sinking ship to leave? Reading, say, John Lee/Will China Fail? and David Shambaugh/China Goes Global, I hope the Chinese leaders will steer their boat very well.
During the thirty five years of Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945 the Korean economy grew about 3.5% on the average anually. The population was seventeen million in 1910 but it was thirty million in 1945 even excepting three million Koreans who emigrated overseas. Growth for industrial output for the West was less than 50% from 1920 to 1938; it had become more than five times bigger for Korea. Bruce Cumings says that Japan's management of Korea was exemplary while British rule in India retrogressed the country from industrializing to agricultural country. 2.5% of the Korean population had received more than six years' education in the last days of independent Korea but 78% of the Koreans who were born in the 1930s went to school for at least six years. "...the best coloniar master of all time has been Japan, for no ex-colonies have done so well as (South) Korean and Taiwan...((David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations.)"
A thirteen-year-old South Korean boy said on the Internet several months ago that Japan was right and Korea was wrong. He was arrested by the South Korean police. If interested in the historical origin of Korean Japanophobia and how the big lie of Korean women kidnapped and forced to work as prostitutes or comfort women was made up and disseminated, read my four comments to Ian Buruma, East Asia's Nationalist Fantasy Islands at
-Yoshimichi Moriyama , Unnan City, Japan
11 October 2013
South korea doesn't need japan its perfectly able to handle its own affairs and denfenses. With japan its like working with the devil in disguise
-truth , usa