South Korea and Japan on June 29 will sign their first bilateral military pact since the Japanese occupation of Korea ended in 1945. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) creates a framework for Seoul and Tokyo to exchange intelligence on subjects of interest, including North Korea and China. South Korean opposition forces and civic organizations have criticized the pact, which the South Korean Cabinet approved quietly earlier this week — the Japanese Cabinet is expected to approve the agreement June 29. Critics accuse the government in Seoul of effectively letting Japan off the hook for "wartime atrocities" and kowtowing to U.S. pressure to strengthen military ties with Japan as part of U.S. initiatives to establish ballistic missile defense in Asia.
The South Korean decision to sign the GSOMIA reflects Seoul's ongoing attempts to strengthen its own domestic defense capabilities and helps illustrate the difficulties Seoul has had in this process, particularly in satellite reconnaissance. South Korea began reshaping its defense relations with the United States under its two previous liberal presidents and has continued under the existing conservative leader. Seoul has adjusted its North Korea policies and is reassessing its relations not only in Northeast Asia but around the world. Since the end of the Korean War, the South Korean military has served primarily as an auxiliary for U.S. forces in Korea. Much of the structure and equipping of the South's military has been geared toward fulfilling that role, not on the development of independent defense capabilities.
Under former South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun, Seoul accelerated the process of developing "independent" capabilities, while at the same time continuing negotiations with the United States over the future of military cooperation and the Combined Forces Command, which technically gives Washington control over South Korean forces during a Korean crisis. Key to Roh's policies was the expansion of the South Korean navy and the development of South Korea's indigenous space program. South Korea's rocket and missile technology has long been hampered by bilateral agreements with the United States, and this arrangement has affected Seoul's military and civilian space programs.
Lacking support from the United States, Seoul sought out Russia as a partner in its space program; the relationship has proved to be less than optimal. Moscow has guarded the technology of its first stage booster, and two attempted launches of South Korean space rockets that used a combination of Russian technology and South Korean technology have failed. A third attempt is slated for later this year, but Seoul is privately considering walking away from this partnership to seek its own indigenous first stage technology. The space program is important for two reasons. First, it is critical to South Korea’s ability to keep tabs on North Korea and other potential threats to its national interests. Second, the South has fallen behind China and Japan in the Northeast Asian space race.
Lacking support from the United States, Seoul sought out Russia as a partner in its space program; Seoul is privately considering walking away from this partnership to seek its own indigenous first stage technology.
The lack of sufficient space-based surveillance and minimal South Korean manned and unmanned aerial reconnaissance capabilities have left Seoul dependent upon the United States and others for much of its visual and even electronic intelligence regarding North Korea. Despite the alliance structure, Seoul is never confident that it is receiving everything it needs to be certain of what is happening in the North. South Korea has already signed an intelligence sharing agreement with the United States, Russia and several other nations to help it overcome this limitation. The agreement with Japan falls along a similar line.
After the November 2010 North Korean shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, South Korea once again found itself at the mercy of foreign countries — and commercial satellite imagery — to fully assess the incident. This incident came less than a year after the sinking of the ChonAn naval ship, and it triggered Seoul's push to sign an intelligence sharing agreement with Japan. In the agreement, South Korea offered its more effective human intelligence capabilities regarding North Korea (and potentially China) in return for Japan's imagery and signals intelligence. Seoul initially also sought a second pact with Japan regarding logistical supply agreements in times of crisis, but South Korea has held back due to the potential domestic political backlash (the pact could allow Japanese forces on the Korean Peninsula).
Such political sensitivities played out a few weeks ago, when South Korean officials clarified the description of the June 21-22 trilateral naval activities with Japan and the United States. The United States had characterized the event (which included the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington) as the first trilateral naval exercises between the three countries. South Korea countered that they were only search and rescue drills, something that had been occurring trilaterally since 2008. This mincing of words reflects some of the ongoing difficulties the United States continues to face in its attempts to strengthen its Northeast Asian alliance structure.
For South Korea, the intelligence sharing pact with Japan is a major political step, but one fraught with domestic and international political problems (Seoul in May offered a similar pact with China to deflect the expected criticism Beijing would heap on the pact with Japan). In the end, Seoul's national defense interests do not solely focus on North Korea but on its difficult geographical position between two larger and periodically hostile neighbors: Japan and China. Every step South Korea takes to bolster its own defense capability to deal with North Korea or to protect its maritime supply lines is a move that Japan or China may see as an eventual challenge to their own national security interests. Northeast Asian security dynamics complicate Washington's challenge as the United States turns its attention to the region.