[Column] A “good enough” attitude to preserve the alliance isn’t always the best strategy

Posted on : 2019-09-12 16:23 KST Modified on : 2019-09-12 16:23 KST
Too much have we belittled our geopolitical worth to uphold alliances that don’t value us
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha with then Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha with then Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono

It is common knowledge that the US leaned toward the Japanese side on the issue of sovereignty over Dokdo as recently as the early to mid-1950s. In August 1951, Dean Rusk, then an assistant secretary of state, sent a letter to the South Korean embassy in the US stating that Dokdo had never been treated as part of Korea and that it had been under the jurisdiction of the Oki Islands in Japan’s Shimane Prefecture since 1905. As South Korea continued to resolutely defend Dokdo even amid the chaos of the Korean War, and as sovereignty over Dokdo emerged as a key issue in conflicts between South Korea and Japan, the US switched to a neutral position, having belatedly realized that the matter stood to threaten not only South Korea-Japan relations but also relations between Seoul and Washington.

I thought of the Dokdo issue again as I witnessed the controversy surrounding the termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) between South Korea and Japan late last month. After Seoul announced its decision to end the agreement, the US criticized the move, using terms like “serious concern” and “disappointment.” At the same time, it failed to say anything about the Japanese export controls that started the whole thing in the first place – a silence that read as effectively defending the Japanese side. South Korea showed no signs of backing down, responding to the US’ criticisms head on with the argument that the alliance could not be prioritized over national interests. And the US belatedly changed its tack, striking a balance of sorts as it pointed to responsibility on both the South Korea and Japanese sides.

Throughout this whole row, the Shinzo Abe administration has openly professed that it wants the agreement to remain in place – but it does not appear certain that this is how they actually feel. If Tokyo truly wanted exchanges of military information between South Korea and Japan, they would not be so vigorous in spurning Seoul’s proposal to resolve the export control issue through negotiations.

The Abe administration has consistently accorded less and less strategic value to South Korea. Just a few years ago, Japan’s Diplomatic Blue Book described South Korea as a “neighbor sharing basic values”; today, it lists South Korea-Japan relations as “facing a serious situation.” In Japan’s Defense White Paper, South Korea has been dropped down the priority ranking to fourth place, behind Australia, India, and the ASEAN countries. In a recent column, Yuichi Hosoya – a Keio University professor who has been described as Abe’s “diplomatic brain” – essentially treated South Korea as worthy of disregard, writing that “the [countries] of geopolitical importance to Japan are the US and China,” while South Korea’s “importance is not great.”

It makes no sense to claim that Japan places much value on security cooperation with a country that it sees as having so little strategic value. Not only that, but Japan also cited security concerns as a reason for its export controls. Were Japan’s repeated claims about “wanting to keep the agreement in place” intended to build justification for blaming South Korea when it fell apart? The actual termination of the South Korea-Japan military information agreement comes 90 days after its announcement – meaning that there are still more than two months left. What I’m saying is that if the agreement really is important to Japan, it’s not too late.

GSOMIA withdrawal ultimately got US more involved in S. Korea-Japan conflict

The administration’s bold decision to go ahead with ending the agreement appears to have been a double-edged sword. If the decision’s aim was to get the US involved, then it does seem to have more or less done the trick. Indeed, the US responded quite keenly, tossing aside its stance of viewing Tokyo’s economic retribution measures as a “matter between South Korea and Japan” and keeping itself at arm’s length from the fray. It’s still too early to tell whether Washington will intervene directly in South Korea-Japan relations, but it does at least seem likely to play a role in making sure those relations don’t sour even further.

But there’s another variable at play in this process: the discord revealed between South Korea and the US. What the Moon Jae-in administration did in standing up to the US and insisting on “speaking its piece” was actually quite unprecedented. It came as a surprise, standing in sharp contrast with the consistently cautious approach the administration had shown in its relations with the US – withdrawing its opposition to the THAAD deployment once it came to office, for example, or subordinating its North Korea policy to relations between Pyongyang and Washington. How to approach relations with the US is a matter that the administration is going to have to address going forward.

Some have voiced fears that the South Korea-US alliance is “in crisis,” but that doesn’t seem to be the right take. We’ve heard the “alliance in crisis” argument at various times in the past, but in retrospect it’s always been part of an old and outdated repertoire. There’s no need for own to belittle our strategic value. The Korean Peninsula is an unquestionably important geopolitical strategic base for the US and China alike. When differences arise, it isn’t always the best strategy to let things slide and adopt a “good enough” attitude just because of the alliance.

By Park Byong-su, editorial writer

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