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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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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