Pragmatism, pleaseDefense ministers of South Korea and Japan held their first high-level bilateral talks in more than four years on the sidelines of the Asian Security Summit in Singapore. Bilateral ties and reciprocal sentiment have been worsening since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with his nationalistic campaign and revisionist historical perspective, took office. A poll by the JoongAng Ilbo and Nikkei showed that just 3.7 percent of Koreans and 5 percent of Japanese think bilateral relations are good. Five years ago, amicable sentiment had been 24.3 percent among Koreans and 30 percent for Japanese .
The talks between Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo and his Japanese counterpart, Gen Nakatani, did help to provide some much-needed relief in the bottleneck. Tokyo pledged to send troops to the Korean Peninsula in the event of contingencies only upon request and prior consent from Seoul. The two countries also agreed to discuss measures to prevent skirmishes in areas of the air defense identification zone claimed by each. Although the issues are not immediate concerns, it was wise to lay down some parameters in the event of any potential confrontations.
The two, however, failed to make progress on more pressing issues like defense intelligence sharing and cooperation in arms supplies. The Korean minister said that despite ample opportunities for cooperation and exchanges in the area of defense, the two countries cannot exploit them due to longstanding historical issues. The Seoul administration maintains it cannot upgrade the bilateral relationship beyond a certain level unless the two countries can establish mutual trust through Japan’s sincere atonement for its wartime atrocities, including the enslavement of Korean women by its military.
Mutual assistance on arms supplies is a sensitive issue, especially at a time when Japan is building military power through the exercise of its collective self-defense rights and a stronger alliance with the United States. But sharing military intelligence could be helpful, as North Korea has been accelerating its nuclear weapons program, having test-launched a ballistic missile from a submarine last month. Signing an intelligence pact was canceled at the last minute in 2012 by the Lee Myung-bak government in response to strong protests from lawmakers and citizens. Seoul needs to separate security policy from historical issues if it hopes to broaden military cooperation with Tokyo to address the mounting threat of North Korea.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 1, Page 30