Remember that military intelligence sharing agreement between Korea and Japan that got cancelled an hour before the signing agreement in 2012?
Well, we’ve got a new one. And this one won’t be cancelled before signing because it’s already been signed.
There were no smiling photo ops or handshakes when the U.S., Japan and South Korea kicked off their trilateral intelligence-sharing pact aimed at improving defenses against North Korean missile threats.
The defense ministry in Seoul confirmed at a regular press briefing on Monday—not at a joint signing ceremony—that the three-way pact had taken effect, keeping a low profile on the deal.
“The deal allows Seoul and Tokyo to share information only indirectly via the U.S.—an arrangement that reflects the strained Korean-Japanese relations,” said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.
“Keeping a low profile” is one way to put it. “Sneaking it past the Korean public” might be another way.
This pact differs from the aborted 2012 pact in that it’s a trilateral one with the United States, which will play the role of middleman:
The trilateral arrangement allows Seoul and Tokyo to share military secrets on North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats via the U.S., which has bilateral military intelligence sharing accords with each of the two Asian countries.
South Korea and Japan, however, do not directly share sensitive information under the pact, an arrangement that reflects the bitter memory of Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-45.
When the South Korean and Japanese defense ministries intend to share secret information between them, they can do so by providing the information to the U.S. based on the accords, according to the agreement.
The conservative press has been largely supportive of the agreement, which is not surprising because they liked the 2012 one, too. The JoongAng Ilbo writes – quite reasonably, IMHO – that Seoul and Tokyo need to compartmentalize when it comes to historical issues and matters of security cooperation:
The three-way security pact will bring more accurate information on North Korean nuclear and missile dangers. South Korea now has access to Japan’s intelligence through their reconnaissance military capabilities in space, sky, sea and land. Tokyo is also said to have a powerful network of sources in North Korea. With North Korea nearing the stage of weaponizing nuclear bombs into missile warheads and capable of shooting missiles from mobile launchers, intelligence resources have become crucial. Security readiness should not be associated with any past issues or public sentiment.
The Korean Defense Ministry said the trilateral information sharing is limited to intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear abilities and missiles and unrelated to the U.S.-led missile defense program. The government should make it clear to the public that its latest move does not indicate participation in the U.S. missile defense program that is being protested by China and Russia. At the same time, Seoul should use the momentum to improve ties with Tokyo. Tokyo should first offer a genuine apology in the thorny issue concerning wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women during the upcoming vice ministerial meeting in Seoul.
The Dong-A Ilbo argues likewise:
It would be wise to separate national security from history issues to jointly cope with common threats. Equipped with surveillance satellites, strategic patrol aircrafts and Aegis destroyers capable of precisely tracking movements at North Korea’s nuclear test sites, missile bases and transporter erector launchers, Japan is partly ahead of South Korea in capabilities for conducting surveillance on the North. If the sharing of Japan’s intelligence with South Korea and the United States would reduce blind spots in surveillance over North Korea, making it easier for them to immediately react to the situation in the event of an emergency.
Those on the more left-wing side of the aisle are not huge fans of the agreement, in regards to both its content and the manner in which it was concluded. The Hankyoreh, for instance, didn’t like it when it was first announced, and it really didn’t like it when it found out it had already been signed. To sum up its complaints:
- The Defense Ministry pushed this agreement in secret with no effort made to get public support.
- By defining the agreement as one between military authorities rather than one between governments, the administration is attempting an end run around the National Assembly, in violation of a 1999 Constitutional Court decision declaring all agreements regarding national security subject to parliamentary approval.
- The United States took a leading role in pushing the agreement because it’s trying to build a trilateral military alliance against China. The agreement is also connected to the U.S. missile defence initiative.
- By defining North Korea as a common enemy and sharing intelligence, the agreement helps Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ambitions to make Japan a military power. It also gives Japan more room to exercise “collective self defense” on the Korean Peninsula.
- Korea doesn’t get anything out of it. Seoul can get the intel it needs on North Korean nukes and missiles from the Americans. It doesn’t need Japan, which the Hani doesn’t think really has that much to offer in regards to intel gathering on the North anyway. Instead, Japan is likely to grow more arrogance about historical issues.
- Did we mention that China won’t like this? Nor will North Korea, which will likely strengthen its nuke and missile capabilities. Oh, and the agreement could lead to a “new Cold War structure” with the United States, Korea and Japan on one side and North Korea, China and Russia on the other.
- This deal is a “poison apple,” the price Korea has to pay in return for the United States accepting the delay in the transfer of wartime operational control.
Similar complaints can be read in the Kyunghyang Shinmun.
Mind you, it’s not just the lefties who think the way the intelligence sharing deal got done is problematic. The Chosun Ilbo – who seems to likes the idea of the agreement – penned an editorial yesterday blasting the government for pushing the deal in secret and essentially lying about when it was signed. The United States signed the deal on Dec. 23, and Korea and Japan signed on Dec. 26, meaning for four days, the Ministry of Defense said nothing about a deal in the works – in fact, it was only after the Japanese press reported on it that the ministry confirmed it, leading the Chosun to wonder if the government would have told us at all if the Japanese media hadn’t told us first. To make matters worse, when the ministry did tell the public on Dec. 26, they explained it would be signed and go into effect on Dec. 29 (and in fact, the vice minister’s signature is dated to Dec. 29), when in fact it had been signed on Dec. 26. And no report was made to the National Assembly until the day the agreement went into effect. The Chosun warns that the Defense Ministry’s dishonesty will only heighten suspicions at a time when there is wariness regarding Korea possibly joining the U.S. missile defense regime and Japan’s military ambitions.
Not that you asked my personal opinion about the deal, but I guess I feel about it the way I feel about the recent U.S. deal with Cuba. As for the Cuba deal itself, I suppose I can get behind it. As for the secret manner in which it was negotiated, well, that I’m not so sure about. There’s a time and place for secret diplomacy, of course. As the Brookings Institution’s Martin S. Indyk told the NYT in regards to the Cuba deal, “Negotiations are like mushrooms: They grow in the dark. That’s especially true of negotiations between longtime adversaries, where the domestic politics on both sides make it impossible to reach a deal if the negotiations are conducted in public.” I’m just not sure the intelligence deal with Japan was the aforementioned time and place. At the very least it seems you’d want to give the National Assembly at least a couple of days to debate the merits of a deal like this before it gets signed.
Photo from U.S. Pacific Fleet.