June 29, 2012 — Earlier this week, South Korea made the surprising announcement that it intended to sign a landmark military pact with Japan today.
But faced with domestic criticism over the potential partnership, South Korea postponed signing the General Security of Military Information Agreement.
As historical tensions between the two countries continue to hamper their attempts to develop a closer relationship, the fate of the treaty remains unclear.
"There is just an overriding common interest on the part of South Korea and Japan to share some critical information, especially about North Korea," Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, told Trend Lines. "Obviously the United States and, frankly, the governments of Japan and South Korea are all on the same wavelengths on this and all want to share the data and information. There are a lot of good reasons why this is going to happen, and it has run afoul mostly of politics."
Cronin said that the two parties will ultimately sign the pact.
"There has to be greater cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo and their two intelligence and military apparatuses in confronting the potential spectrum of conflict," he said, particularly emphasizing North Korea's provocations.
"The principal motivation for the pact is the increasingly uncertain strategic environment in East Asia," added Richard Batcheler, a doctoral student at Oxford University focusing on Japanese contemporary security policy and a researcher at the Asia office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Policymakers in both countries continue to perceive North Korea as a security threat and remain unsure of the intentions behind China's growing military strength."
Batcheler called the postponed agreement largely symbolic, and said an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement, or ACSA, would be the "logical next step" in a move toward a full alliance.
"It is a fancy way of saying you can load on and load off materiel in a crisis," Cronin said of the ACSA. He explained that such an agreement would allow each country to cross-service the other's ships and aircraft and allow for the development of contingency plans.
The reason South Korea and Japan do not currently have an ACSA lies in what this agreement would make possible, Batcheler said, providing the example of a scenario in which South Korea could give Japanese troops permission to enter South Korean territory.
"Such a provision would be hugely unpopular within South Korea given the history between the two nations, and it is this domestic political environment which remains the largest obstacle to enhancing military cooperation between the two states," explained Batcheler. "This ill feeling is not only grounded in history but made worse by the fact that unsettled territorial disputes remain between the two countries."
Cronin added that election-year politics represent yet another hurdle in the bilateral security relationship. South Korea will elect a new president this year, meaning potential leaders on this issue are avoiding unnecessary risk.
"But the more Japan and South Korea can cooperate, the more they can send a signal to North Korea that further provocations will not be tolerated," Cronin said, explaining that it is in the interest of the whole region to maintain deterrence against North Korea. "This would cement the peace, preserve deterrence, preserve readiness and ensure that there is a greater likelihood that North Korea can be deterred from further lethal uses of force."
Cronin said to consider the role the postponed agreement would play if the U.S. and South Korea move forward with a ballistic missile agreement.
"South Korean intelligence and information sharing with Japan would in effect provide a regional network," he said. "And that is really what the U.S. needs both for intelligence and surveillance and reconnaissance in general -- to see what is going on and get a clear picture of North Korean movements -- but also to have systems compatible with common standards so we can have the kind of real-time interoperability for all of the systems that would be used."
Cronin explained that from the perspective of U.S. policymakers it is of utmost importance for South Korea and Japan to sign a military pact "in order to foster the increased interoperability but also the general trust of our two major allies in Northeast Asia."
"What we don't want for sure is for this agreement to go up and be shot down and become a cause célèbre for nationalistic politics inside South Korea and Japan," he added. "I would encourage these governments to do the same things they would do under the pact secretly until they can get the public support they need, which may not come until after the election."
Until then, he said, "we are living dangerously."