Why South Korea Is in an Uproar over Intelligence Sharing with Japan

The countries are military allies but share a fraught history. Now Seoul's presidential election may be affected by the controversy

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Brendan Smialowksi / AFP / Getty Images

South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan

On its face, the idea seems rational enough: two allies and regional neighbors, both prosperous democracies with key foreign policy interests in common, resolve to share military intelligence, something that they perhaps should have been doing for some time now. But when the countries involved are South Korea and Japan, rationality can be a scarce commodity. The tortured history between the two countries almost guarantees that.

Whatever sense it may make for the militaries in Tokyo and Seoul to share information — about North Korea, in particular, and about China’s rising military profile in East Asia — South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s attempt last week to approve the intelligence-sharing agreement without parliamentary review, at what the Korean press calls a “closed-door Cabinet meeting,” has become a self-inflicted wound. Coming as it does in a political year in South Korea — it will elect a new President in December — it’s not one that’s likely to heal soon.

(PHOTOS: A New Look at North Korea)

On Friday, South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan called his counterpart in Tokyo, Koichiro Genba, to cancel a planned signing ceremony at the last minute. The fact that Lee’s Cabinet had approved the agreement three days earlier, without briefing parliament, turned what should have been a relatively straightforward policy decision into a political storm. Imperial Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea, from 1910 to ’45, makes relations between the two countries perpetually fraught. Being called pro-Japanese in the South is still a bit of an insult, and so a bilateral agreement on enhanced military-intelligence sharing between the two nations — a first — was bound to be sensitive. That Lee, approaching the end of his single five-year term in office, apparently failed to appreciate that was startling.

It certainly doesn’t help Park Geun-hye, the likely presidential nominee from Lee’s political party, Saenuri, or New Frontier. Park Geun-hye is the daughter of former South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee — who famously attended the Manchukuo Imperial Army’s academy in the early 1940s, during Japan’s occupation of northeastern China. In 1965, Park Chung-hee, while President, declared martial law in Seoul to contain violent demonstrations against the normalization of diplomatic ties between South Korea and Japan. Park Geun-hye was likely going to formally announce her candidacy for President either this week or the next. With the opposition party now pounding Lee about the intelligence-sharing agreement — “the agreement is unthinkable,” says Park Jie-won, parliamentary floor leader of the opposition Democratic United Party, given that Japan still has not offered “a sincere apology about its past” — Park Geun-hye subtly distanced herself from the policy, saying it should now be reviewed by the assembly. Whether the controversy might delay her presidential announcement — she remains the front runner, according to most opinion polls — was unclear.

The principal advocate of enhanced military-intelligence sharing between Seoul and Tokyo is Kim Tae-hyo, President Lee’s brainy national-security adviser, known as staunchly pro-American and a hawk when it comes to South Korea’s relationship with the North. Press reports in Seoul, moreover, have suggested that the Obama Administration, now in the midst of a much hyped foreign policy “pivot” toward Asia, prodded the two countries (Washington’s key allies in the region) to intensify their military cooperation. Two weeks ago, the three governments conducted joint naval exercises off the South Korean coast — with North Korea the obvious enemy. Though not the first time the three nations have conducted military-training exercises together, it was the largest so far. With the U.S. present, the three-way war games were not met with nearly the outrage in South Korea that surrounds the bilateral military-intelligence agreement with Tokyo.

The intelligence-sharing agreement, Lee’s government says, does not require Seoul’s parliament to approve it, but the Foreign Ministry now says for transparency’s sake, it should at least be debated in the National Assembly. The Lee government now concedes that it botched the rollout; however, it also insists that it is not backing off. That’s probably at least partly because Tokyo was taken aback by how ham-handed the Lee Administration’s management of the whole affair has been and is said to be privately seething. Lee’s government, for its part, says the agreement is in the security interests of both nations and will therefore proceed, once the historically rooted political furor dies down. Which, given that a presidential election beckons, might not happen anytime soon.

— With reporting by Stephen Kim / Seoul

PHOTOS: Japan Takes Command — but Don’t Tell Anyone

27 comments
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Hiro
Hiro

"Whatever sense it may make for the militaries in Tokyo and Seoul to share information..."

Japan does not have a military.  It only has a "Self Defense Force," as was decreed after World War II by the allies.

zigolleid
zigolleid

And that was one of the worst part of this "sharing" - it was trying to implicitly acknowledge the SDF as a "military" force.

Hiro
Hiro

 Ah. This is quite true.  However, I believe Japan's SDF has been "exchanging" information with the US military for over half a century, though the circumstances between the US and Japan are a little different from Japan and the rest of the world.

It's a little iffy when the Japanese SDF gets "deployed" to other nations during American conflicts under their pressure, though. Defeats the whole concept of "Self Defense Force," since the nations that they are being sent to most likely have not done anything militarily to Japan (Iraq or Afghanistan, for example- cannot recall at the moment which it was; maybe it was even both?).

StephenCH
StephenCH

Japan does have a military.  "Self Defense Force" is just a pleasant euphemism... somewhat like saying the US National Guard isn't a military or the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, aren't a military.  Yes, Japan has not mobilized its forces offensively since WW2, but this is a fine line to cross, especially when Japan is expanding its naval forces.  There certainly are Japanese politicians who believe Japan needs to move beyond the facade of the SDF and openly field a military.  It's likely only a matter of time.

omegafrontier
omegafrontier

 No, this is racial tension at work.  The two groups of people cannot forgive and forget and move on to better thing.  Historical hatred is one that's difficult to heal. 

I think it's time for these two countries to move on and look at the future.  Peace in the pacific will depend on their cooperation.

nick212
nick212

omega, you and the author are missing a major point. bad relations are not just about 'history,' which sounds like something long ago. to this day, japan practices institutionalized racism and discrimination against ethnic koreans born in japan, whose ancestors were forcibly brought to japan as slave laborers. they are not considered citizens or given equal rights.... it's basically how america treated blacks before the civil rights movement except it's happening today, in the year 2012.

furthermore, it's as if america denied slavery ever occured and whitewashed its textbooks so that its younger generations would grow up denying the same. you should learn more about japanese society. what makes it great also makes it terrible.

xhearingxcolorsx
xhearingxcolorsx

Japan still practice institutionalized racism? Um no. They don't. Neither country can forgive and forget, but neither country actively acts racist etc. My grandmother is full Japanese but was born in Korea. She has no problems. It's the very old generation that refuses to see past the past and make a better power against North Korea. Also, America does teach slavery in textbooks. And though Japan may not teach its past in textbooks (I wouldn't know, I was raised in America), young Japanese still know their past. Japan is a very civilized country now and its government doesn't keep its citizens in the dark about stuff like that. That is brainwash. I advise you to check your facts before running your mouth about people and cultures you clearly know nothing about.

And "Jap" is very rude, in response to somebody else who commented here.

xhearingxcolorsx
xhearingxcolorsx

KoreanAmerican79: I apologize for not writing clearly, I was typing on an ipod and it kept deleting what I typed, so I had to re-type it. I also have Korean friends in Japan but they experience no problems. I was not aware that that happens still, as I live in America and have to go off of what they tell me. However, I don't appreciate the tone you took saying "my grandparents" committed these things. They did not. It was the government and the military that did those things. I do recognize the things that the Japanese military did, I never said they never happened. On the contrary, I said they DID happen, and that Japanese youth KNOWS that it happened. The YOUTH have nothing to do with this whole race-war, it's the elders. My grandparents speak very kindly about Koreans. It's people like you who lump all Japanese together that I don't like. That goes for any race. If I were black and called all white people slave-owners, or said all white people need to apologize for their past actions (even though many weren't even born yet), would that be fair? No. Also, Japan is not saying it never happened. They just can't seem to apologize correctly, which is a shame. I do hope someday the Prime Minister and the Emperor can together make a sincere and formal apology to Korea. So why in the hell are you attacking me as if I think these things? Don't "F-ING" accuse me things like that, it's incredibly rude. Especially when my statement was based on my friends' stories. Not to mention when I visit my family in Japan every couple of years, I don't see anything like that, and I have been enrolled in school there in my childhood. But if you say it happens, I guess maybe it does. Again, I apologize for seeming ignorant.

StephenCH: Actually I also have many friends living in Korea. I have asked them about the Japanese-Korean relationship in general. They told me among the youths, Japanese are welcomed as much as any other person in the world. They especially love J-pop, J-rock, Japanese TV, etc. And this is as of last year. Unless my friends are lying or delusional. Also, LOOK: I never said they don't omit these things in their textbooks! People need to learn to READ. I said "Though Japan may not teach it in textbooks"!!!! That means "I don't KNOW whether or not they teach it!" I was simply saying that the YOUTH IN JAPAN ARE FINE WITH KOREANS. THE YOUTH know what happened REGARDLESS of it being taught in textbooks. Stop twisting my words, people. It's a sad testament to the intelligence of humanity.

Just so everyone is clear: I NEVER ONCE SAID JAPAN DID NOT OWE KOREA AN APOLOGY. I SAID EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE. LEARN TO READ!

The other two of you I won't even write anything in response, except what I am writing now. I don't feel your comments dignify any intelligent response, seeing as you couldn't provide one for me.

Sincerely, 

A girl who hopes someday racism will be a thing of the past (after all due apologies are made) and people who claim literacy but seem to not understand a word of what they read will learn better.

P.S.: I am not going to post again on this. If you would like to have an intellectual chat over e-mail concerning this, I would love to talk to you-- on the basis you actually read my words. I won't provide my e-mail here, but I will check back occasionally.

StephenCH
StephenCH

Your ethnically Japanese grandmother was born in Korea... do people know she's ethnically Japanese?  Koreans typically look down on Chinese - you can see this in the recent turmoil over Chinese immigrants in Korea.  As for the Japanese, while the Japanese are enthralled by K-pop and the "Korean Wave," there's little affection for the Japanese in Korea.  This can be seen in the persecution of descendants of Koreans who were alleged collaborators.  The rabid nationalism over Dokdo Island and the East Sea (Sea of Japan) is another example.

Japan has much that it must account for.  The Japanese people, as a people or government, have never taken responsibility for the crimes they committed in WW2.  To see the victims, like Korean "comfort women," women who were gang-raped by the Japanese Army with the full knowledge and support of Tokyo, is heartrending.  You say the govt doesn't hide the past; what else would you call omitting information in history books?  The textbooks go beyond glossing history and instead credit Japanese occupation with "modernizing" its colonies, colonization is painted as a good thing.  Soon, the comfort women and other victims of Japanese atrocities will be dead - and then who will remind the Japanese of their past?  

nick212
nick212

um, yes they do.  see comments below.  learn what's what before running your ignorant mouth.

i'm not sure what your grandmother has to do with anything, since it is not clear from your writing what you meant to say.  she is ethnic korean born in korea, but is now a full japanese citizen?  or she is ethnic japanese born in korea, and now has no problems in japan?  in korea?  wtf are you talking about?  learn about japanese history and learn how to write.

i know america teaches slavery in its textbooks, i was raised here. i was making the point that what japan does would be akin to america denying slavery or germany denying the holocaust. that's what japan does when it sanitizes its textbooks.

saying "um, no" and then making a random comment about your grandmother does not an argument make.  nice try.

KoreanAmerican79
KoreanAmerican79

Lol, you obviously don't know the situation there concerning Koreans living in Japan. Nick is absolutely 100 percent right. Racism towards Koreans that live in Japan is rampant; most can't get jobs as a result. The only way for them to have a semblance of a decent life is if they change their last name to yokohama or something japanese. I had a lot of friends that were born and grew up in japan and ultimately were forced to come to korea because of this discrimination. Also, you say "neither country can forgive or forget" lol... that's a funny line because what have Koreans done to Japanese that they should forgive Koreans? Yes we should forgive you for raping our women, trying to destroy our entire culture, trying to obliterate our language, forcing us to fight YOUR F-ing war, performing obscene and insane operations to further “medical studies”, and all the other atrocities you animals committed against us. Someday we will forgive you guys, but first recognize and apologize for the atrocities that you committed at the very least. That’s where forgiveness begins. Furthermore, your ignorance on the subject just further proves how well their system works as you know ‘nada’ about your egregious actions that your grandparents have committed. What Japan continues to do is akin to the Germans adamantly stating that the Holocaust never happened and still discriminating against the Jewish people today. I just hope at the very least you understand that this is the truth and hope in my lifetime your people will apologize so that we can finally start the healing process. And yes Jap is very discriminatory, come on guys we live in 2012.

IQMinusOne
IQMinusOne

"Japan may not teach its past in textbooks"

They do, but in their own version. If you don't think that is a big deal, imagine that creationism is in every textbook that Americans read.

Also I found the two of your statements are quite hilarious when put together:

"I wouldn't know, I was raised in America"

"I advise you to check your facts before running your mouth about people and cultures you clearly know nothing about."

hearingxcolors
hearingxcolors

Japan still practice institutionalized racism? Um no. They don't. Neither country can forgive and forget, but neither country actively acts racist etc. My grandmother is full Japanese but was born in Korea. She has no problems. It's the very old generation that refuses to see past the past and make a better power against North Korea. Also, America doesn't deny slavery ever occured. It's written in textbooks. Japan may not have their past written in textbooks (I wouldn't know, I was raised in America) but that doesn't mean young Japanese don't know what happened. Japan is a civilized country now, their government doesn't keep it's citizens stupid. You sir need to watch what you say when it comes to things you clearly know nothing about.

And "Jap" is very rude, in response to somebody else who commented here.

AlterYourEgo
AlterYourEgo

Japan prefers amnesia over reality.  It can't accept that it did anything wrong. 

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Danyz
Danyz

One can see a very retro mindset at work here, one born of desperation in the face of China's inevitable ascent to regional power. Ironically, it would appear that President Obama is behind this maneuver to get South Korea and Japan on quasi-military footing vis a vis NK and China.

I think what is inflaming South Koreans the most is the underhanded way black leather Lee tried to sneak this agreement through without parlimentary approval. Clearly he longs for the days of SK tin pot dictators, and so his choice of the unctious Park as his successor. This nostalgia too explains in part his policy of provoking North Korea. The SK dictators of the past needed this kind of enemy to stay in power. In reality then, the Korean Peninsula appears to be regressing to a time when mutually hostile dictatorships, north and south, ensured each other's survival. Just how this will prolong America's influence in the region remains to be seen....

IQMinusOne
IQMinusOne

Exactly. That's why the Chinese government (not necessarily Chinese people) appears to be wining by exporting corruption.

China has its own national interests, no doubt about it. But the biggest concern to the Chinese government, still controlled by the communists (or rulers, whatever the name), is to make people forget, or even never to realize in the first place,  that the ruling class is enjoying all the good things in life at the expense of the majority of the people, and that it's possible to build a just society that's far better than the current one.

Much has been said about promoting democracy worldwide by America. But it seems the Chinese communists are try to influence America by baiting it into another Roman empire that went from a republic to an empire.

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KangSan Lee
KangSan Lee

So not giving North Korean threats is provoking North Korea? The two previous liberal/left-wing administration under Kim and Roh, pumped money in to North Korean dictatorship in the name of "humanity". 

What did SK get in return? More threats and attacks. What did the "humanitarian" aid do? It fed the North Korean military and Kim Jung Il household. 

Exactly how did Park and Chun needed to provoke North in order to stay in power? Their policies were focused on economic growth and political stability, not particularly fighting the North.

If anything, this whole uproar just shows the famous tendency for Koreans to constantly factionalize themselves and fight about which faction is better and which is worse. More over this looks more like the whole nonsense about U.S beef being imported in to Korea and the whole uproar about it 4-5 years ago. Liberal and left-leaning media creating frenzy and shit storm so their friends in politics can get elected.

pretty stupid thing to be arguing about really, why should it matter if MB administration wants to share intel with Japan? What does this have to do with Japan's colonization of Korea a hundred years ago? Its certainly understandable to hate them, but this is simply for the good of the Korean peninsula, and if they are going to argue about that, then you just know that its just factionalism kicking in again.

u
u

is the korea government closer to the chinese than to the jap? It seems that the countries in east Asia hate each other no matter what. The jap seems ashamed of admitting their past and the korean and Chinese hate the jap for their past even though they won the war.

Danny Collins-Evans
Danny Collins-Evans

Its complicated, China is close with North Korea so it does strain the relations with the South. China, North Korea and South Korea dislike Japan because of what they did to their countries, even though China won the war it was at a large cost of life, Japan pretty much massacred Chinese civilians and raped women and exploited Korea when they had control of it. 

China and Korea  in general have had pretty close relations for much of history, sharing cultural values, diplomatic and trade. They both co-operated in operations against Japan in World War 2. Many in China and Korea still take offense that the Japanese Prime minister still visits the Yasakuni Shrine (A shrine dedicated to Japanese soldiers dying in the name of the emperor), Disputes the actual numbers killed in the war and change or soften Japans position in Japanese school textbooks. 

History still plays a large part in the relations, South Korea recently seized property from the descendants of Pro-Japanese collaborators from over 100 years ago, property that was gained through co-operation with Japan. 

tellok
tellok

 China won what war?

IQMinusOne
IQMinusOne

Well, because of this kind of attitude, Japan was rewarded of land that should have been to China.

AlterYourEgo
AlterYourEgo

Japan surely didn't.  While China didn't win it single-handedly, it was on the winning side.

Danyz
Danyz

Jap? Not a very erudite choice of words. And sadly, there is a not insubstantial faction in Japan that sees only moral rectitude in the days of their mad military rampage through Asia. But in case this bunch still dreams big, simple demograpics and logistics make such a comback a near impossibility.