Japan and Korea: Opportunities for Cooperation

Korean politicians find open relations with Japan very risky, but there are still ways to improve this necessary relationship.

Editor’s Note: TNI has teamed up with Japan-ROK Working Group at the Pacific Forum CSIS in order to preview its upcoming report focused on improving bilateral relations through targeted engagement on a range of areas. The “Japan-ROK Series” will feature five timely articles summarizing these recommendations in fields such as cooperation on North Korea, missile defense, counterpiracy, energy security and inter-parliamentary ties. This is the first article in the series.

Given the complex strategic environment that South Korea and Japan face, with a belligerent, unstable North Korea and a stronger, more assertive China, foreign-policy elites in Seoul and Tokyo should be eager to move past divisive historical issues and build a more cooperative security relationship. However, the latest attempts at institutionalizing security cooperation—the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and the Military Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA)—were put on hold in June 2012. Both sides were ready to sign the agreement, but former Korean President Lee Myung-bak encountered significant domestic opposition. Any future attempt to move toward a cooperative security relationship will likely be a political minefield, but leaders on both sides could improve their chances by narrowing the initial scope of cooperation and improving the message they sell to the public.

Even with lingering mistrust, there have been signs of an improving security relationship between Japan and Korea over the past decade. Following the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the United States, Japan, and South Korea released a trilateral statement declaring that they would oppose North Korean provocations and work to enhance regional stability through coordination, consultation, solidarity, and partnership. And in a sign of further thawing relations, Japan and South Korea agreed, beginning in June 2012, to participate in annual trilateral naval exercises with the United States. Moreover, in August 2013, South Korea and Japan participated in a sixty-aircraft multinational training exercise that was described by Korea’s Yonhap News as “unprecedented for the U.S. allies.”

Moving beyond the current impasse would benefit Japan and Korea and potentially open the door for a formalized U.S.-Japan-Korea trilateral security relationship. The Japan-Korea GSOMIA was a relatively standard agreement, similar to intelligence sharing accords that South Korea has with twenty-four other countries. It proposed sharing classified information on threats and would have helped both sides to better assess North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles programs, Chinese military modernization, and other potential threats to regional stability. Japan and Korea would also benefit from an ACSA that would establish the framework for bilateral logistical cooperation for humanitarian and peacekeeping operations. Such an agreement would likely be less controversial than intelligence sharing and would allow the two countries to more seamlessly respond to humanitarian emergencies in the Asia-Pacific.

But for Seoul, an emphasis on general strategic value is not sufficient. Korean historical memory of colonization and comfort women will not fade anytime soon, making any publicized effort to increase cooperation with Japan politically very risky. Given the respective family histories of Park Geun-Hye and Shinzo Abe, Park is especially prone to accusations of being soft on Japan, making resumption of GSOMIA talks a political gamble. In order to move toward a more robust security relationship with Tokyo, Seoul must highlight the concrete benefits of cooperation while deemphasizing historical grievances and the ongoing territorial dispute. By pursuing more narrow security cooperation and reframing the public narrative—emphasizing the North Korean threat and clearly articulating how cooperation with Japan would make the Korean people safer— Seoul could improve the chances of obtaining sufficient domestic support. At the same time, South Korea could work to pass ACSA by emphasizing the humanitarian importance of the agreement. Indeed, successful passage of the less controversial ACSA could pave the way for later passage of GSOMIA.

First, the Korean government should emphasize the strategic necessity of increased military exercises and information sharing with Japan. Rhetorically, the government should present GSOMIA and improved military cooperation as key elements of an effective North Korea deterrence strategy. Seoul must frame this as a strategic necessity, arguing that increasing interoperability and demonstrating a more united front would help deter North Korean provocations. Furthermore, any resumption of negotiations on an intelligence sharing agreement must be conducted in a very public and transparent way. Polling in 2012 showed that while 61 percent of Koreans were against the agreement, 44 percent saw it as necessary. In September 2013, 60 percent of Koreans believed GSOMIA was necessary.