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     Jan 12, 2011

Testing times for Japan-South Korea ties
By Kosuke Takahashi

TOKYO - Spooked by the continued menace of North Korea and the territorial belligerence of China, Japan and South Korea are planning to sign pacts on supply exchanges and security intelligence - their first-ever military agreements.

Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa, who landed in Seoul on Monday, has agreed with his new counterpart Kim Kwan-jin to start talks on two separate agreements. While one will facilitate exchanges of military goods and services, the other will boost shared intelligence on North Korea's nuclear weapons, missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Kitazawa's trip to South Korea is the first in six years for a


Japanese defense minister. The visit reflects a warming of relations between the two nations, as shown by each other's participation in joint military exercises with the United States last year, with Japan taking part as an observer.

Kitazawa's proposal to Seoul is in line with Japan's long-term strategy. Japan’s defense policy for the next decade, approved by the cabinet of Prime Minister Naoto Kan last month, calls for closer cooperation on defense with countries such as South Korea, Australia, Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries and India. The plan is to forge multi-layered security cooperation with the international community, a move apparently aimed at countering China's growing power and the North Korean threat.

The Japanese defense minister has proposed two separate agreements. The first is the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), which other countries refer to as the Military Logistics Supporting Agreement (MLSA). For constitutional reasons, Japan avoids using the word "military".

This agreement concerns exchanges of military goods and services such as food, water, fuel and transportation during international peacetime cooperative operations such as peacekeeping and disaster rescue efforts.

South Korea has MLSA agreements with eight nations, such as the US, Turkey, Thailand and the Philippines. Reportedly, it plans to expand the number to 15 by 2012. Japan concluded ACSAs with the US in 1996 and Australia in 2010.

The second agreement on the table is the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which facilitates shared intelligence on North Korea's nuclear weapons, missiles and weapons of mass destruction.

Japan currently operates three spy satellites that monitor North Korea's military facilities. If the accord is reached, Seoul may benefit from these. Once a fourth satellite goes into orbit in the coming year, Japan will be able to monitor the entire Korean Peninsula at least once every 24 hours.

If signed, the pacts could open a new chapter in Japan’s relations with its former colony - Tokyo ruled the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

Media in each country has taken note of the improving relations. South Korea’s Maeil Business Newspaper reported earlier this year that Japan's foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, has proposed that the two nations forge a "security alliance".

The Korea Times has reported that South Korea plans to sign at least one of the military agreements by the end of this year, citing an anonymous senior official at the Ministry of National Defense. Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper also reported the two countries were preparing a new Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration, with the aim of signing it when President Lee Myung-bak visits Japan as a state guest in the first half of this year.

The two nations signed a similar declaration in 1998 expressing their shared determination to build a new partnership. But it omitted any mention of possible future military cooperation, an issue that was taboo topics in both countries at the time.

The US behind the curtain
As is often the case with regional affairs in North East Asia, behind the curtain of the recent developments between Japan and South Korea is the United States.

In December, Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed the significance of trilateral cooperation between the US, Japan and South Korea at a press conference in Tokyo, saying he sees a "real sense of urgency" in light of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Mullen was visiting Japan for the first time since North Korea's shelling of a South Korean island on November 23, which killed two troops and two civilians.

He also noted the importance of the three countries taking part in joint military drills."I would like to see all of us do as much as we can regionally and certainly exercising together is a big part of that." He also appealed for a more active role from Tokyo at a crucial time when "steps must be taken to ensure" that war-mongering from North Korea is stopped.

"Although there are separate security alliances between the US and Japan, and the US and South Korea, there is no alliance between Japan and South Korea," Japanese military analyst Toshiyuki Shikata told Asia Times Online. "In a sense, Japan and South Korea indirectly cooperate with each other via the US currently. If the two nations directly work together, this would reduce the US burden. That's pretty good news for the US."

While the two governments, especially their defense officials, are willing to strengthen military ties, ethnic nationalist sentiment on the South Korean side is a key factor.

Among older Koreans, the memories of Japan's colonization are still raw, and territorial disputes over a group of islands - called Tokdo by Koreans and Takeshima by Japanese - are still simmering.

Seoul has been concerned over a resurgence of Japanese military power since the end of World War II, and now is no different. South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo said in its January 5 editorial, "Many people also worry that Japan is seeking to use the tension on the peninsula stemming from the North's sinking of the Cheonan warship and its bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island as an opportunity to bolster its military power in the region."

Japan has taken note of the nationalism issue, with Foreign Minister Maehara saying on January 4 said Tokyo will need to be “sensitive” when improving security ties with South Korea.

China in a corner?
South Korea is also mindful that military cooperation with Japan could impact negatively on bilateral relations with China, Seoul's largest trading partner. Closer military ties between Tokyo and Seoul could force an already unhappy China into a corner, with Beijing further strengthening ties with North Korea as a result. China last year repeatedly voiced concern over a US-South Korea military drill, and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces took part in July for the first time as an observer.

South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo's editorial said more solid Japan-South Korea military ties could "stimulate China to pursue a foreign policy that leads to a Cold War-like atmosphere of confrontation in Northeast Asia".

Kosuke Takahashi is a Tokyo-based journalist.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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