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[Editorial] Still premature

Military cooperation in such rudimentary areas as sharing of information and mutual logistics supporting in emergencies may sound harmless with any friendly countries, but we have reasons to be cautious if it concerns Japan. Two things have to be considered: Are we ready to forget about all the legacies of the past, and are we prepared to antagonize China as Japan emerges as our military ally?

Belligerence of nuclear-developing North Korea shown in the deadly provocations against South Korea last year and China’s growing assertiveness in territorial claims on disputed islands the seas that surround it are raising a sense of urgency in Tokyo. Right now it may be true that Japan needs South Korea more than South Korea needs Japan in the changing security circumstances of Northeast Asia.

Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa’s visit to Seoul next week for talks with Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin is spawning speculations on concrete bilateral steps for closer military ties. They are to take up the issue of concluding a general security of military information agreement (GSOMIA) and an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement (ACSA) between the two countries in addition to reviewing the regional military situation. Korea already has ACSAs with eight countries and GSOMIAs, or MOUs for such cooperation, with 21 nations.

The unusual revelation of the major topics of the ministerial meeting in Seoul, the first in five years, seems to be a move to test domestic and external reactions to military ties across the Korea Strait. Negative factors are apparently stronger here because of the psychological impact of the colonial past and the present complicated relations with China.

In recent months, both Japan and Korea had the humiliating experience of waiving punitive actions on Chinese fishermen who were detained for violating maritime rules in the face of what amounted to bullying by Chinese authorities. If these episodes helped narrow the distance between Seoul and Tokyo, officials here have the lingering question about the desirability of hardening a confrontational situation between the United States, South Korea and Japan on one side and China protecting North Korea on the other.

A triangular defense arrangement has been in place since the 1960s, with Washington maintaining separate military alliances with South Korea and Japan. It will be more effective for the U.S. to operate the system if the two Northeast Asian allies have direct military links between them.

When U.S. JCS Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen recently called for increased security cooperation between Korea and Japan overcoming their historical obstacles and suggested joint exercises among the forces of the three nations, the reaction here was generally negative. As long as Tokyo claims Dokdo, there should be no hurry to offer it any new instrument of military cooperation.

In Tokyo, media speculations went so far as to predict that the two countries would issue a declaration of comprehensive military cooperation during President Lee Myung-bak’s next visit to Tokyo, sometime in the first half of this year. Such reports, which Seoul officials quickly denied, reflect top Tokyo officials’ wishful thinking about security alliance with South Korea. Even Prime Minister Naoto Kan has mentioned the need for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces entering the Korean Peninsula in the event of an emergency.

Security situations are changing fast in this part of the world chiefly because of the North Korean provocations and China’s economic and military thrust, but national sentiments change slowly. Japanese leaders will have to wait a little longer to have other players in the region accept Tokyo as a trusted military ally.
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