Since Lee Myung-bak’s visit to Washington in October 2011 there has been an air of self-congratulation surrounding the U.S.-ROK alliance relationship. President Obama shared publicly that Lee Myung-bak is one of his closest colleagues among world leaders and referred to the U.S.-ROK alliance as a lynchpin for Asia-Pacific security. The alliance has reached new heights with KORUS ratification and close coordination in response to North Korean provocations. South Korea has also emerged as a trusted contributor to international security in cooperation with the United States.
South Korea generally welcomes President Obama’s rebalancing policy toward Asia, although there have been concerns that a stronger, more “geographically distributed” U.S. presence might come at the expense of South Korea, and that U.S. fiscal constraints might presage tougher negotiations over South Korean support for the U.S. presence due to take place next year.
But an unanticipated second-order effect of the U.S. rebalancing strategy has been the U.S. desire to see greater “lateral” cooperation among close allies of the United States, including between Japan and South Korea. Although such cooperation seemed relatively easy in the immediate aftermath of North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong island in November 2010, when the U.S., Japanese, and South Korean foreign ministers met and issued a strong statement that suggested enhanced trilateral security cooperation, that momentum has not been enough to overcome deep-seated bilateral differences between Japan and South Korea over historical and territorial issues.
Last week, the United States, Japan, and South Korea conducted trilateral search, rescue, and naval blockade exercises in waters south of Jeju Island, drawing a critical response from North Korean and Chinese commentators. Then, Japan and South Korea tried once again to sign an information sharing agreement between the two countries following multiple false starts since 2011, only to have the plug pulled an hour prior to the signing by the South Korean foreign ministry, in response to internal conflicts and political pressures from South Korea’s National Assembly.
The South Korean foreign ministry identifies (in Korean) the North Korean nuclear and missile threat as the backdrop for its recent attempt at a ROK-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement. And while that challenge alone should be sufficient to inspire closer Japan-South Korea security ties, the U.S. rebalancing effort serves as yet another impetus. In line with its rebalancing strategy, the United States in recent months has undoubtedly pushed for greater cooperation between its two allies. However, a worsening atmosphere between the two neighbors over comfort women, disputes over the official designation of the Sea of Japan/East Sea, and ongoing sovereignty disputes over Tokdo/Takeshima Island (or the Liancourt Rocks, for those who advocate strict naming neutrality) has had this U.S. push come into conflict with nationalists in both countries that are staunchly resisting the need to contain old disputes and build “future-oriented relations.”
Despite the South Korean proclivity to resist working with Japan, doing so is clearly in South Korea’s interests. Japan serves as a rear base of support for U.S.troops likely to be involved in the defense of South Korea. Also, South Korea’s capacity to assert influence, and thereby be taken seriously by an increasingly confident China on peninsula-related issues, depends directly on a strong U.S.-ROK alliance, and indirectly on the success of U.S. rebalancing to maintain stability and curtail the potential negative effects of growing expressions of Chinese nationalism. Information sharing with Japan will bring South Korea into sync with this rebalancing strategy, which shores up regional stability and enhances South Korea’s security. It may not be popular, but South Korea’s interests will be best preserved if its strategists follow their heads and not their hearts when it comes to enhanced security cooperation with Japan.