At present, there are perhaps two absolutes about Japan-South Korea security relations: neither broad hostilities nor a formal security alliance are in the offing. As wide as the spectrum is between these two points, security relations between Tokyo and Seoul are often described only in terms of being good or bad, occasionally improving but hardly stable. That is, until now.
The most recent flare up of Japan-South Korea political tensions, stemming from South Korean criticism of both Japanese high school textbooks and Junichirō Koizumi’s August visit to Yasukuni Shrine, was marked in the security relationship by delay of exchange visits, postponement of meetings, and cancellation of a military exercise. The security relationship did not rupture however, breaking with the past. One reason for this is that Japan and South Korea have introduced military organizations into their security relationship, which is providing some shelter from political storms. Another reason is that the desirability and feasibility for a security relationship has increased, reflecting deepening incentives for a security relationship.
How have military organizations been introduced into the Japan-South Korea security relationship and what does this mean? “Incrementally” and “a lot” are the short answers. The longer explanation is that through a series of official bilateral defense exchanges, working-level meetings, and other interactions, beginning in the early 1990s, the Japan Defense Agency (JDA) and the Korean Ministry of National Defense (ROKMND) established tenuous links and confidence building measures (CBMs) between themselves. A 1995 agreement between the airforces is one such CBM while defense dialogue summits represent a new conduit for exchange. One implication here is that the Japan-South Korea security relationship can now fruitfully be analyzed in political-military and military-military terms. Another is that the relationship is becoming stable. It is possible that another implication will be pressure by the JDA and MND on their respective foreign ministries to solve political problems, paving the way for broader security cooperation.
In this short presentation, I examine the Japan-South Korea security relationship in political-military and military-military terms. I focus on the introduction of military organizations into the security relationship though the air force agreement, a joint SAR exercise, and annual working level meetings, looking closely at what segmentation of the security relationship means. Incentives and motivations for the bilateral security relationship—shared interest in Northeast Asian stability, concern over North Korea, and implementation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—will also be covered. The main arguments will be: 1) introduction of military organizations into the security relationship provide a measure of stability for the relationship; 2) political tensions may have temporarily suspended developments in the security relationship but they have not significantly rolled developments back; 3) particular aspects of the security relationship have continued uninterrupted even as political friction played itself out. The main conclusion I draw is that Japan and South Korea will continue pursuing a security relationship through dialogue and military CBM exercises. I invite you all to come hear this fascinating story and think with me about the developments, implications, and potential of this Northeast Asian security link.
Jason U. Manosevitz is a graduate of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, currently studying in Keiō University’s Department of Law through a Ministry of Education scholarship.