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Inter-Korea Dialogue versus Japan-South Korea Military Engagement

Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • January 14, 2011

    For the Korean peninsula, the year 2011 opened with hopes of a return to peace, with North Korea making a series of gestures to South Korea to “open their hearts” and resume talks after a hiatus marked by hostility. The North’s offer coincided with the 28th birthday of the heir apparent Kim Jong-UN. North Korea’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said, “We do not want to see the present South Korean authorities pass the five-year term of their office idly without North-South dialogue.” It further said that “there is neither conditionality in the North’s proposal for dialogue nor need to cast any doubt about its real intention.” Further, Pyongyang pledged to reconnect the hotline between the Red Cross organisations of both Koreas and reopen the Consultative Office for North-South Economic Cooperation at the Kaesong industrial complex to take the lead in pushing for inter-Korean talks.

    From the other side of the divide, in his New Year address to the nation, South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak promised help for the North under the right conditions. He also said that his government needs to strengthen security in view of the North’s aggression in 2010. That 2011 started off with both sides expressing a desire for dialogue to ease tensions is welcome. But the problem is that while the North wants unconditional negotiations, the South is willing to offer economic support only if the former demonstrates seriousness and takes concrete steps to show that it truly wants peace.

    In view of the complexity of the issues involved, mainly the issue of denuclearising North Korea, Pyongyang’s conciliatory stance is unlikely to please Seoul. South Korea sees in the North’s stance a well-established carrot-and-stick model in which “Pyongyang pushes the level of conflict to the brink of serious hostilities before relenting with offers of talks and requests for food and financial aid.” For example, in 2009, North Korea had made a declaration to reopen the hotline and the economic cooperation office when its economic conditions had deteriorated and it needed external help. South Korea sees a similar pattern this time as well. Moreover, in its latest offer, North Korea also proposed discussing the resumption of a joint tourism programme that was suspended in 2008 when a South Korean tourist was shot dead after he reportedly entered a restricted area in North Korea. South Korea, however, says that neither its government nor the military has received any official dialogue offer and therefore interprets the North’s offer as “just a unilateral announcement”.

    North Korea's offer of dialogue has led to the speculation that the Six-Party Talks (SPT), suspended since April 2009, may be revived and talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear programme resume. This is however not easy. Here two issues are important. One, before any direct talks with the North begin, South Korea wants Pyongyang to admit its guilt in the attacks on the South Korean warship Cheonan in March 2010 that killed 46 people. Two, South Korea insists that any future bilateral talks with the North should include the nuclear issues.

    But Pyongyang insists that it is innocent in the March 2010 sinking of the Cheonan and defends its November 2010 artillery strike on Yeonpyeong as self-defence. Instead, it has suggested a working-level meeting on January 27 to set the ground for subsequent higher-level talks on joint economic initiatives. This is a standard North Korean ploy to obtain economic assistance and create political confusion in the South since the Opposition is likely to criticise the Lee government for not addressing the issue seriously.

    South Korea has reason to be sceptical of the North’s offer since in the past Pyongyang had made similar promises only to break them in no time after extracting economic aid. After shelling the Yeonpyeong Islands, it is now adopting a diplomatic approach by calling for the resumption of dialogue. The Lee government may appear hawkish but it has taken the right position by refusing to award concessions which only encourage further hostile behaviour by the North. Both Washington and Seoul have taken the position that they would not back such bilateral meetings unless the North carried out measures including admitting its guilt in the sinking of the Cheonan.

    In the meantime, responding to North Korea’s recent provocations, Japan and South Korea have taken a landmark step to strengthen military collaboration despite the latter’s lingering bitterness over Japan’s brutal occupation of the Korean peninsula in the first half of the 20th century. Japan’s Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa visited South Korea on January 10, 2011 to build a common understanding on working towards a military cooperation agreement with South Korea. Kitazawa proposed and his South Korean counterpart Kim Kwan-jin agreed to discuss two separate agreements, the first between the two countries since the end of World War II. The first agreement, called the “Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA)”, aims at allowing South Korean and Japanese armed forces to share supplies and services such as food, fuel and transportation during international operations like peacekeeping and disaster relief efforts. The two countries also agreed to hold specific consultations regarding the agreement for sharing bilateral military supplies and services. In addition, the two defence ministers agreed to hold further consultations on signing another pact to facilitate the exchange of military secrets. If signed, the “General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA)” will allow both countries to systematically exchange intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear programmes and weapons of mass destruction. No official deadline, however, has been set to ink the agreement. Given the sensitive nature of such military agreements, if signed, they will have immediate implications for China which is unlikely to view such an arrangement between Japan and South Korea kindly.

    Notwithstanding the South Korea's deep resentment towards Japan and the territorial disputes that continue to exist between them, both countries are important trading partners and share common security concerns regarding North Korea. Last year, for the first time, they both sent their observers to each other’s military drills with the United States which was held in response to North Korea’s military aggression. Japan, however, rejected a proposal by US Adm. Mike Mullen last year for joint military drills among South Korea, Japan and the US to increase deterrence against North Korea since such a move would run counter to Japan’s pacifist Constitution which strictly prohibits the use of force as a means of settling international disputes.

    The beginning of military cooperation between Japan and South Korea demonstrates the fact that Japan has begun to review its security policies. Japan is likely to face a critical security scenario if the situation in the Korean peninsula deteriorates further. It remains unclear whether Japan would extend cooperation with South Korea to military emergencies in the event of a larger confrontation occurring in the peninsula. North Korea’s peace overtures towards South Korea need to be evaluated in the context of this evolving military engagement between Japan and South Korea.