South Korea and Japan: An Alliance Without Friendship

The bilateral relationship between Seoul and Tokyo has been a marriage of convenience, plagued by a perpetual deficit of trust and respect on both sides. Despite the fact that both nations are considered America’s primary allies in Asia-Pacific, they struggle to even agree on the name of the sea between them. Japan calls it the “Japan Sea,” while South Korea claims that the name carries with it imperial connotations and proposes the alternative term “East Sea.” Given this, it is not surprising that the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between the two countries is crumbling today. In fact, it is surprising that their leaders – who could not even agree on the name of the sea between them – succeeded in concluding the GSOMIA defense pact in the first place.

Since the emergence of the GSOMIA debacle this summer, Western pundits have warned that the abandonment of the GSOMIA could negatively impact the landscape of security governance in East Asia, an arrangement that has enabled Japan and South Korea to share intelligence on North Korea’s missile and nuclear program. Yet such a pessimistic view is unfounded for a number of reasons. To begin with, one must recall that the GSOMIA is a new agreement that was only signed by Seoul and Tokyo in 2016. Indeed, the GSOMIA is the first and only major defense cooperation pact between South Korea and Japan. Although Washington has expressed strong support for the pact, the pact lacks wide-ranging grassroots support from citizens of both countries, who continue to be trapped in memories of the past. Certainly, a plurality of South Korean citizens were opposed to concluding such a pact with Japan. The bilateral negotiations for the GSOMIA were thus initially conducted in a secretive way under the Lee Myung-bak administration, away from public scrutiny.

Then and now, American pressure has been a key factor in driving South Korean and Japanese leaders to consider the possibility of developing and extending the GSOMIA. For America, the pact would not only enhance the vitality of triangular security cooperation, but also serve to create an impression of American-allied Asian “democracies” standing shoulder to shoulder with one another. For this reason, the GSOMIA has also been a PR project for American officials who envision a stronger “democratic alliance” in Asia-Pacific. Yet the GSOMIA debacle has shown that a sense of solidarity between Seoul and Tokyo is clearly lacking. As long as there is a perpetual deficit of mutual respect, any agreement between the two nations – on defense, on historical issues, or otherwise – will likely remain a transactional arrangement with uncertain prospects. The American hegemon might eventually succeed in convincing South Korea and Japan to continue the GSOMIA. But even in this scenario, Washington cannot force a friendship between Seoul and Tokyo.

In the meantime, the American hegemon began advancing the claim, more forcefully than ever before, that Seoul and Tokyo had disproportionately benefitted from the security guarantee provided by Washington. Had South Korea and Japan seized the opportunity to foster a more amicable strategic partnership, they could perhaps have formed a sort of united front against America’s unilateral push for greater “burden-sharing.” However, in the absence of such a partnership, both nations may have no choice but to submit to the will of their patron, though they will certainly strive to draw some concessions from their assertive “Big Brother.” At the end of the day, the United States might succeed in charging more “protection fees” for Seoul and Tokyo, but this would only reinforce the perception that the alliance with America is essentially a business deal. Such a view is already prevalent among top East Asian security officials, even though most of them are afraid to publicly state their honest opinion. A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a private and informal meeting attended by officials and scholars from Russia and Japan. There, a Russian participant asked: “Why does Japan love America so much?” A high-level Japanese security official promptly responded: “We don’t love them, we just need them!”

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