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Korea seeks balance between security partners and China

Seoul seeks to expand defense ties with Tokyo, Beijing as security uncertainty grows

South Korea is walking a diplomatic tightrope as it seeks to achieve balance between its traditional security partners and the growing power of China in Northeast Asia.

Seoul has been working with Japan over possible military agreements concerning logistics and information despite domestic opposition stemming from long-standing historic and diplomatic disputes.

With China, South Korea is seeking an agreement facilitating supplies cooperation between the two militaries during humanitarian aid and rescue missions.

Experts said the moves are part of Seoul’s strategy to diversify its network of security partnerships, not only to fend off the North’s threat, but also to tackle uncertain challenges of a future multi-polar world.

“Diversifying military cooperation is part of Seoul’s efforts for diversifying diplomatic relations, which South Korea wants as it seeks to play a bigger role on the international stage,” professor Kim Jong-ha of Hannam University said.
This file photo taken in 2010 shows U.S. fighters taking off from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class USS George Washington for joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea in the East Sea. (AFP-Yonhap News)
This file photo taken in 2010 shows U.S. fighters taking off from the flight deck of the Nimitz-class USS George Washington for joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea in the East Sea. (AFP-Yonhap News)

South Korea-Japan military ties

Closer military ties between South Korea and Japan are widely seen as a wider security network centering around the two countries, the U.S. and Australia.

While reducing its defense spending, the U.S. has been making its military more flexible while increasingly emphasizing cooperation with regional countries.

The U.S. is becoming increasingly focused on the Asia-Pacific, seeking enhanced ties with its allies in the region. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Saturday the U.S. Navy plans to place 60 percent of its resources in the Asia-Pacific by 2020. At present the U.S.’ naval assets are divided equally between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.

The South Korean government considers military cooperation with Japan as being an important step in curbing North Korea’s security threat and promoting stability in the region.

In addition, increased cooperation between the two key U.S. allies in the region is a positive factor for the U.S. strategy of keeping China in check.

The two countries had originally planned to sign information and supply related agreements at the end of May, but Seoul has delayed the process in the face of domestic criticism that the matter was handled too hastily.

According to the Ministry of Defense, the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan would be “essential” to national security as the agreement would allow Seoul’s military to keep a closer eye on North Korea.

Japan’s military possesses a number of high-tech surveillance equipment including six Aegis destroyers fitted with the latest radar equipment and several early warning aircrafts, giving Japan an advantage in monitoring developments in North Korea.

“With regards to the defense industry, South Korea is already talking with Japan for increasing cooperation. This will help the country develop more advanced equipment, and also open export routes,” Kim said.

As for regional security, however, experts said South Korea’s ties with Japan are unlikely to help regional stability as they could stir concerns from China and North Korea.

“Ties with China are more influential on inter-Korean relations than relations with Japan, so I don’t think strengthening military cooperation with Japan will be directly beneficial in terms of inter-Korean security,” Kim said.

He added that such developments could also cause problems in economic relations between Seoul and Beijing.

“On the outside it is a tool for countering North Korea, but from China’s point of view it is ultimately strengthening the frame for keeping it in check,” professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies said.

“In the long run, (increased trilateral military cooperation) could result in South Korea, Japan and the U.S. holding a joint drill off the coast of Jeju. There is no reason why China would take military agreements with Japan well.”

Observers suspect South Korea has been pressured by the U.S. to push defense ties with Japan despite a significant political burden.

Such views are supported by leaked diplomatic documents.

According to diplomatic reports compiled by the U.S. Embassy in Japan in 2009, South Korean government officials were of the opinion that three-way security talks between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington would be of very little help for South Korea’s security situation.

The documents also state that South Korea’s participation in the 2008 Defense Trilateral Talks was “entirely due to strong U.S. government pressure,” citing a South Korean diplomat stationed in Japan.

Regardless of the agreement with South Korea under consideration, Japan’s military appears ready to become more active in the region.

According to reports, Japan’s Ministry of Defense is reviewing plans to deploy Aegis destroyers in the international waters “near the launch site” when North Korea is scheduled to launch long-range rockets.

Although patrolling in international waters is allowed under international laws, a Japanese military vessel operating within close proximity to the Korean Peninsula is a thorny issue for Korea due to unresolved historical and territorial issues. The Japanese government continues to deny its involvement in forcing Korean women into sexual slavery for its military during Japan’s occupation of Korea. In addition, Japan is maintaining that the Dokdo islets in the East Sea are its territory.

South Korean civic organizations and politicians have criticized the plans, while North Korea has referred to the developments as being in line with a U.S. plan to “conquer the world.”

In addition, such developments could aggravate China, which had responded strongly to the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercise conducted in the West Sea in 2010.

South Korea-China defense ties

Although a military agreement with China remains a far more distant prospect, experts say that any military cooperation with China that goes beyond humanitarian missions will have far-reaching implications for South Korea.

“Search and rescue missions for pilots and sailors in international waters will strengthen mutual trust, but advanced cooperation with China could have negative effects on Korea’s relations with other countries,” professor Nam Chang-hee of Inha University said.

He added that it is too early to be considering military agreements when the bilateral relationship is that of strategic partners. The Seoul-Beijing relations were upgraded to that of strategic partners in 2008. Since then the two nations have been holding joint search and rescue exercises and seeking ways to increase military exchange.

“For instance, an information sharing agreement could strain the Korea-U.S. alliance because such a pact represents risks of secrets shared by Seoul and Washington going into China,” Nam said.

In addition to having the potential to strain the Korea-U.S. alliance, increased military cooperation with China is likely to affect Seoul’s relations with North Korea.

China has long been North Korea’s main ally, and under its tacit approval Pyongyang has been strengthening its military capabilities. In addition, China is suspected of having given Pyongyang technical support in developing long-range missiles and its economic aid has allowed the secluded nation to dull the impact of international sanctions.

However, experts say that closer South Korea-China military ties could negatively affect inter-Korean relations precisely because Pyongyang has such a close relationship with China.

“It is conceivable that Pyongyang will take such developments as China cooperating with the South Korean and U.S. efforts to bring its regime down. I think that North Korea could oppose Seoul-Beijing military agreements as strongly as it did the two countries opening diplomatic relations in 1992.” University of North Korean Studies’ Yang said.

After Seoul and Beijing established diplomatic relations with South Korea on August 24, 1992, North Korea-China relations took a sudden dive that lasted for nearly seven years.

Following the development, no top-level North Korean official visited China in an official capacity until president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea Kim Yong-nam visited China in June 1999.

“If that is the case, Pyongyang could cut out Seoul more than it has done so already.”

Earlier this year North Korea talked directly with the U.S. while cutting out South Korean involvement, and succeeded in getting the U.S. to promise food aid in return for Pyongyang taking steps toward denuclearization. The agreement, however, fell apart due to North Korea conducting its long-range rocket test in April.

By Choi He-suk  (
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