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     Jul 17, 2012

South Korea: A deal too far with Japan
By Aidan Foster-Carter

Never a dull moment in Seoul, politically. And half the fun is, you never know where the next storm is going to blow up. The election campaign continues fast and furious, and we'll be returning to that. But the issue du jour in South Korea right now is on the foreign front.

If you follow politics in Seoul, you'll be aware of a huge row that has blazed up over what would have been South Korea's first ever security accord with Japan. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), to give it its full dull name, was all set to be signed in Tokyo on June 29 - until Seoul pulled out at the last minute. Most embarrassing.

So what happened? The South Korean press, parliament and


public had found out about it and raised an almighty ruckus. They did so on two grounds: one good and the other bad.

Under the radar
The good reason to protest was that their government had tried to sneak this through under the radar. That is obviously both wrong and ham-fisted. Everything leaks in Seoul, so the news was bound to come out - and so it should. A democracy doesn't sign foreign treaties, even anodyne ones like this, without consulting the people and their elected representatives.

Yet the GSOMIA wasn't put to the National Assembly. Nor did it undergo proper scrutiny in the various ministries involved, mainly National Defense (MND) and Foreign Affairs and Trade (MOFAT). Along with the presidential Blue House, these have since indulged in an unedifying blame game - each desperate to pass the buck. Two MOFAT officials have resigned, as has a senior Blue House security advisor, Kim Tae-hyo. President Lee Myung-bak - whose own eye was off the ball since he was visiting Latin America for the Group of 20 and more - will miss Kim, a youngish hardliner who had a major influence on Lee's overall foreign policy. Others are glad he's gone.

Even the cabinet passed GSOMIA quietly as an impromptu item: It wasn't on the published agenda. But then word got out, and all hell broke loose. The accord now looks sunk, at least until South Korea gets a new president early next year, and maybe not even then.

The same goes for a second, separate plan to conclude an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) with Japan, also known as Mutual Logistic Support Agreement, which tells you what it does. As with GSOMIA, this is not about actual direct military cooperation. In fact neither of them objectively is any kind of big deal at all. (A tad disingenuously, this is one argument being used by officials in Seoul, as they wipe the egg off their faces, to justify why they thought these were something that bureaucrats and the executive branch could just settle among themselves, without troubling legislators or the public. I half-believe them.)

So why the backlash? For no good reason; mainly just sheer gut prejudice against Japan. As President Lee rightly pointed out, GSOMIA is simply about sharing information and as such is routine. Seoul already has two dozen similar accords - including one with Russia, even.

Don't rile China
Who could be against that, and why? Amid all the fuss, just two - no, one and a half - good arguments have been raised. Some mutter that Tokyo has no better intel on North Korea (the main concern here, needless to say) than Seoul and Washington already possess, so what is the point, it would be unequal exchange? This seems doubtful, and somewhat petty-minded.

A more cogent point is what signal GSOMIA would send to China. Not a lot, I reckon, the more so as Seoul is said to be mulling similar non-military security cooperation with Beijing.

Still, South Korea does have a dilemma. Its founding alliance with the US de facto aligns it also with America's other regional ally, Japan - however reluctant Koreans are to complete the third side of the triangle, as Washington dearly wishes they would. But its main trading partner - ditto for Japan - is now China, a mighty neighbor and the planet's rising power.

That's a tricky one. Despite having various bones to pick with China, not least its support - perhaps now waning somewhat - for the recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang, South Korea can hardly afford to be seen as ganging up on the country whose growth largely drives its own.

Pivot anxieties
Hence there is some anxiety in Seoul about the US administration's new "strategic pivot" toward Asia - as there was a few years ago when Donald Rumsfeld declared that US forces based in Korea must be "flexible" henceforward. South Koreans want the US to defend them against North Korea - but they don't want to be dragged into any conflict between Beijing and Taipei.

These competing pulls entail some delicate rebalancing. But they won't get that right if they aren't seeing straight. And as of now, South Korean threat perceptions appear wildly askew.

Read the Seoul press of late, or any time, and who d'you think is public enemy No 1? North Korea? That would be understandable, given Pyongyang's two attacks in 2010 and its continuing bellicosity: cartoons depicting Lee Myung-bak being killed like a rat, and threats to shell South Korean newspapers that saw a Nazi parallel in a recent Northern youth fest.

Yet as the New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning Korean correspondent Choe Sang-hun noted on July 5, to be deemed pro-Japanese is "a far worse charge in South Korea than being pro-North Korean". That canard, rather than any rational debate, is what sank the GSOMIA. The liberal opposition led the charge, and the ruling conservative Saenuri party didn't have the guts to stand up for reason. In an election year, no one can afford to appear pro-Tokyo.

Japan an enemy? Are they kidding? Alas not. The threat is wholly imaginary, but the bee in Korean bonnets about it is all too real. And as the early US sociologist W I Thomas long ago observed: If people think something is real, then it is real - in its consequences. My next article will probe this skewed vision, and delve into the murky depths of the Korean psyche.

Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs. He has visited South Korea some 25 times in the past 30 years, starting in 1982.

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