Support is slim in South Korea for a military alliance with Japan, an idea the U.S. government reportedly wants to float during an upcoming trilateral summit later this month.
While Washington hasn’t made any formal announcements, U.S. President Joe Biden and his team may push their Korean and Japanese counterparts to agree to consult each other “in the event of an attack,” according to a Financial Times report on Tuesday.
Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that there have been ongoing trilateral consultations regarding the content of a joint statement but “nothing has been set.”
Biden will be meeting with President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at Camp David on Aug. 18. The trilateral summit has been touted in Korea as a first of its kind, taking place independently and not on the sidelines of a multilateral forum.
The trilateral summit was arranged following a recent thaw in Korea-Japan ties that were largely frozen over the past few years over diplomatic disputes on compensation for Korean victims of Japanese wartime forced labor.
Korea and Japan have a military security intelligence-sharing pact, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia), which took four years to negotiate and establish due to constant opposition within Korea.
The agreement, formally established in 2016, was nearly revoked in 2019 when bilateral relations soured over the Korean Supreme Court’s rulings in favor of Korean victims of Japanese wartime forced labor.
While military cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo to address growing security threats from North Korea has been frequently discussed between the two administrations, taking it to the next level of a military alliance will not fly well with the Korean public, said some experts in Seoul.
“The United States would be willing to institutionalize security cooperation between South Korea and Japan to strengthen the trilateral cooperation,” said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University.
“But such a stipulation of security cooperation between Korea and Japan would in fact be a precursor to a treaty alliance, which would be difficult to actually realize, and would face strong domestic opposition as it would then raise the question of whether Japanese Self Defense Forces should ever be allowed to enter the Korean Peninsula.”
South Korea defines North Korean territory as constitutionally South Korean, complicating matters in a military contingency whereby a foreign power attacks North Korea in a counterattack or pre-emptive strike.
Seoul and Tokyo also regularly engage in disputes regarding the territorial sovereignty of the Dokdo islets, a group of small islets in the East Sea, which are another painful reminder of Japan's imperialistic past and its 1910-45 colonial rule over the peninsula.
Korea denies that a territorial dispute even exists as the Dokdo islets are historically, geographically and under international law an integral part of Korean territory.
Japan calls them Takeshima and claims them as its "inherent territory" in its official documents, including its national security strategy. It has been arguing that Korea illegally occupies the islets in diplomatic blue papers issued since 2018.
The two countries may bring up the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement, which would regulate bilateral arms exchanges, at the summit meeting in the United States this month. The agreement was once discussed alongside Gsomia from 2012 but dropped during the negotiations due to domestic opposition in Korea to arms deals with Japan.
“For the trilateral cooperation to be extended beyond the immediate region to be applied to threats in the greater Indo-Pacific region, and even against threats from China, it would indeed require closer security cooperation between Korea and Japan,” said Sohn Yul, president of the East Asia Institute.
“However, considering the sensitivity of Korea-Japan relations, it is necessary to be cautious as security cooperation with Japan always factors in diplomatic and political aspects altogether.”