We need each other
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.
The row with Japan over historical issues is posing challenges not just for the economy but also on the security front. Can we afford to do without the military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan? Some may think some access to satellite pictures is what the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan offers Korea. But that is sheer ignorance of Japan’s value in security matters.
Although not well known, Tokyo has helped Seoul many times on the security front. Former U.S. President Richard Nixon attempted to remove the United Nations Command in South Korea as part of détente with Beijing. If the UN Command had pulled out, the grounds for U.S. military troops in South Korea would have significantly weakened. Pyongyang would have argued strongly to disband the UN allied forces. Tokyo stepped in to take Seoul’s side. At the UN general assembly in 1973, a Japanese envoy opposed unilateral disbanding of the UN Command without prior consent among the parties involved in the armistice treaty on the Korean Peninsula as the move could threaten peace in the region. His opposition was in tune with a South Korean envoy’s statement.
Japan also played a major role in stopping U.S. President Jimmy Carter from withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea in the late 1970s. When Vice President Walter Mondale informed Tokyo of Washington’s decision in January 1977, Japanese legislators immediately issued a parliamentary statement to oppose the move. Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda flew to Washington two months later and persuaded Carter to scale down — not pull out — U.S. troops in South Korea. At the time, President Park Chung Hee had to keep his mouth shut following the exposure of the so-called Koreagate scandal in 1976 involving South Korean political figures seeking influence from 10 Democratic members of Congress. In the end, Carter decided to downsize the troops instead of an outright pullout. Japanese persuasion played a part in that decision.
Tokyo acted entirely out of its own interests, of course. Still, the two countries bonded when their mutual security interests met. The two supported one another whenever the U.S. stepped back from its military commitment to Asian allies.
The missiles North Korea has launched since May were within the range of a maximum of 600 kilometers (373 miles). They were all new types of weapons that fall short of threatening Japan. The target of the new weapons is South Korea. Washington no longer is super-tight in its security commitment to South Korea. When calls for developing nuclear arms on our own gained ground in Korea two years ago in order to counter the mounting North Korean threat, Washington vowed its nuclear deterrence policy. But what that means remains blurry. It merely repeats that the United States can make North Korea regret it if it attempts to strike the South. The Extended Deterrence Coordination Group consultation that is supposed to be held each year has been idle since the last meeting in January 2018.
If the Seoul-Tokyo relationship had not soured, the two could have joined forces to fend off Washington’s demand for increases in cost-sharing for U.S. troops in their own country. Japan now wants to exclude South Korea from their alliance with Washington. It is the consequence of underestimating the value of security allies. Before the crisis worsens, South Korea must try to save the minimum security alliance with Tokyo. The two countries must restore common sense and uphold their defense alliance to confront a common security threat.