A Lost Deal for South Korea and JapanWhy the New York Times should be wading into the failure, at the last minute (Literally -- according some reports, the South Korean side told the Japanese side it was backing out 20 minutes before the signing ceremony), of governments of the Republic of Korea and Japan to sign a General Security Of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) perplexes me. Not because the United States government wants Japan and South Korea cooperating and the Times in the last two decades has become the lap dog of the Washington think tank establishment. What makes Washington unhappy makes the Times unhappy.
The New York Times
Nearly 70 years after World War II, old animosities are still making it difficult for South Korea and Japan to establish a reliably productive relationship. The result is self-defeating for both countries and for regional security.
Last week, at the last minute, South Korea postponed signing a limited military agreement with Japan. The deal would have encouraged the direct sharing and protecting of sensitive military data about North Korea and China and missile defenses. Such intelligence is now shared indirectly through Washington. The agreement was supported by the Obama administration, which has been working to strengthen a trilateral alliance with the two countries, America’s most important Asian allies.
Although Japan’s cabinet approved the deal, a political firestorm erupted in South Korea, and now its fate is uncertain. That is a huge embarrassment, for Seoul and Tokyo, creating more bad feelings between the two. President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea clearly mishandled the politics. The deal was negotiated in secret, with officials informing the public and Parliament just one day before it was to be signed. This is an election year in South Korea; Mr. Lee’s five-year term ends early next year after a successor is chosen in December. He should have anticipated that his political opponents would lash out as they have, accusing the government of being pro-Japanese. Instead of presenting the agreement as completed, he should have made the case for it publicly and worked to build support for it in advance.
Even then, it would have been a tough sell because animosity toward Japan remains very much alive in South Korea. Japan ruled that country as a colony, often brutally, for several decades until the end of World War II. Although the two nations have growing economic and cultural ties, they still have bitter disputes over a set of islets and Tokyo’s rejection of talks on compensating Korean women used by Japan as military sex slaves during the war.
The United States and Japan have said little publicly to avoid inflaming the situation. But we hope they are working to calm the waters on this issue.
What perplexes me is how Washington so enwrapped itself in its own logic that it forgot the hurdles in the way of such an agreement. South Korean activists have been carrying out an almost parodic global war on things Japanese, publishing full-page broadsides about Dokdo to the confusion of the world's dwindling number of newspaper readers, expending energies trying to convince the world's cartographers to change the Sea of the Japan to the East Sea (East of where? Be specific. You are not England and this is not the 18th century. Even the Chinese do not get to call their favorite bodies of water the "the East Sea" and "the South Sea") and turning the sex slaves of the Japan Imperial Forces issue (E) into a bottomless chasm in between the two neighbors.
In order to overcome these domestic political hurdles to intelligence sharing with Japan, the government of ROK would need to be receiving from the GOJ cooperation of such a vital importance to South Korea's security that ROK authorities could just tell its critics to shut the fork up.
However, it seem there is nothing in the agreement that guarantees the government of the ROK gets anything from the GOJ (E) and/or vice-versa.
The GOJ knows after after the debacle of April 13 that it needs real time data on DPRK rocket launches. As for the government of the ROK, it probably wants everything the Maritime Self Defense Forces can tell it about what is going on under the surface of the waters around the ROK, anti-submarine warfare being the one area where the SDF has world-class capabilities.
However, the ROK military would be reticent sharing real time launch data with a non-ally. As for the GOJ side, sharing ASW information with anyone except the United States would go crashing against the current interpretations of Article 9 of the Constitution.
So effectively, a promise of nothing for nothing.
However, the situation for the ROK government is even worse than the above indicates.
First, the national interests of Japan and South Korea are not in sync. Japan wants to stay a non-nuclear state in a nuclear neighborhood with minimal impacts from the presence of U.S. forces and no part in American messianic adventurism. The South Koreans want self-determination for the peninsula even as it China's immense shadow grows. South Koreans lash out at the Japanese to turn attention away from their really problematic neighbor. Lashing out at Japan provides oxygen for the Japanese right wing's effort to revive Japan's ardor for military adventure, for seventy years after the fact, Japan's neighbors still hang on to outdated stereotypes. Respect, the right argues, flows from fear, and fear only comes through strength.
Perversely, signing GSOMIA makes the most sense if Japan is on a remilitarization course favored by Japan's right wing. If remilitarization of Japan has stalled, as it seems to have done, then chances are that Japan will never find the funding for the protocols, the training and the forces necessary to implement the minimal goals of the pact.
Besides, if the government of the ROK were to share sensitive information with Japan, which has no espionage law or law controlling the leakage of information, it would be taking a chance that what should be kept secret suddenly appears three weeks later in the pages of SAPIO or the Sankei Shimbun.
Finally, if an ROK official were to set sail against a sea of troubles and seek to share vital intelligence with the GOJ, whom would he/she call? Ministries in this blessed land do not talk to other ministries. Ministries do not share in a timely fashion with the Public Security Intelligence Agency or, Amaterasu forbid, the Prime Minister's Residence. At times, agencies inside ministries do not share information with the secretariats of that ministry.
So instead of wringing hands, consider a bullet dodged. For good or ill, the government of this blessed land has not prepared this land for participation in the Great Game.