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.

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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

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