Vigilance must be maintained over China-ROK ‘anti-Japan’ ties
There has been a seismic change on the Korean Peninsula, where the Cold War structure remains, as South Korea, with Japan and the United States in the background, is in a military face-off with North Korea, which is supported by China.
China, the world’s second-largest economic power, and South Korea are becoming rapidly closer to each other, indicating they are set to strengthen ties through their mutually shared anti-Japan sentiment. How will this affect the course of Northeast Asia, coupled with uncertain prospects over North Korea?
Japan should remain coolheaded in assessing this development so it can decide on appropriate countermeasures.
Working on history issues
South Korean President Park Geun Hye, whose administration will enter its second year next month, apparently regards China as an important partner, while at the same time stepping up criticism against Japan.
Last year, China became the second country for Park to visit as South Korean president following the United States. This was not just because China is her country’s biggest trading partner. Apparently, she aimed to showcase close ties with her Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to check North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has not visited China since the inauguration of his regime.
Park’s visit also caused speculation that she plans to form a united front with China against Japan over the perception of history and territorial issues.
China and South Korea took advantage of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine at the end of last year to justify their anti-Japan stance, calling the visit proof of the revival of Japan’s militarism and its drift to the right.
If China and South Korea form a united front against Japan, it could lead to weakening cooperation among Tokyo, Washington and Seoul, which is centered on the Japan-U.S. and U.S.-South Korea alliances.
Park even criticized Japan during her talks with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel when he visited South Korea in September. The president countered Hagel when he referred to the importance of security cooperation among the three countries, saying, “Trust has not been established due to the [Japanese] leadership, which has repeatedly made regressive remarks on historical and territorial issues.”
It is highly questionable for a country’s leader to criticize Japan during a meeting with a senior official from a third country. In particular, it is hard to accept her self-centered opinions that blame Japan for the failure to maintain security cooperation between the two countries.
South Korea postponed the signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement in 2012 just before it was to be concluded between Tokyo and Seoul. The agreement is crucial for sharing confidential information on North Korea.
Last month, the Ground Self-Defense Force, now participating in a U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, provided South Korean forces with 10,000 rounds of ammunition for assault rifles without asking for payment. This development highlighted how important it is for the two countries to regularly build cooperation so that they can provide military materials and share duties with each other.
For China, which has been trying to change the status quo by force in the East and South China seas, closer ties with South Korea mean it can exercise more influence over the Yellow Sea and the Korean Peninsula.
There are indications Xi could visit South Korea, possibly even this year. Could his trip add momentum to South Korea’s tilt toward China regarding security affairs, too? Given that closer Beijing-Seoul relations could weaken the alliance between the United States and South Korea, the outcome of the possible China-South Korea summit talks must be watched closely.
Keep framework intact
Chilled relations between Japan and South Korea have prevented Abe and Park from meeting for talks. The relationship could be irrevocably damaged depending on a ruling South Korea’s Supreme Court is expected to hand down, possibly in January, over damage compensation litigation filed against Japanese companies that forced Koreans to labor for them during World War II.
Should a decision by the top court against the Japanese firms be finalized, and should the South Korean government acknowledge this ruling, the foundation of the framework formed by the 1965 basic bilateral treaty to normalize bilateral diplomatic ties could crumble.
The South Korean government, which signed an agreement attached to the 1965 pact that states problems regarding property and claims between the two countries “have been settled completely and finally,” should declare that the Japanese companies have no obligation to pay any compensation. This would be the obvious duty in the international community of a nation governed by the rule of law.
The situation in North Korea remains worrisome. The power base of supreme leader Kim Jong Un, two years after taking over power from his father, can hardly be said to have solidified. Attesting to this is the dismissal and execution in December of Jang Sung Taek, vice chairman of Pyongyang’s National Defense Commission.
Because of the instability of the power structure upholding this regime of terror, Kim will likely become more reliant on the military and push ahead with strengthening his country’s nuclear weapons capability. The political setup that places top priority on military affairs, however, is bound only to hamper alleviation of international economic sanctions against Pyongyang. Under the circumstances, the North’s policy of rebuilding its dwindling economy is doomed to fail.
Concerns are rising that the Kim regime, in a bid to divert swelling popular discontent in the country, may resort to yet another military provocation. Vigilance must be paid to the possibility of Pyongyang charging ahead with a new nuclear test or firing a long-range ballistic missile under the guise of “a satellite launch.”
Kim regime raises risks
It cannot be ruled out that North Korea might resort to an armed attack on South Korea, like its shelling of the island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010. If such an event were to happen again, South Korea has declared it is prepared to strike back ferociously. The risk of military conflict between the North and South should never be underestimated.
Cooperation between Japan, the United States, China, South Korea and Russia has never been as necessary as it is now, given the urgent need to rein in North Korea’s wild behavior and prepare for a sudden crisis there such as a political coup. It is especially important to strengthen strategic cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea on the basis of the alliance ties Tokyo and Seoul have with Washington.
Japan is seeking comprehensive solutions to North Korea’s nuclear and missile issues as well as the abductions of Japanese nationals by Pyongyang. It will need the assistance of China and South Korea to find these solutions. But in light of the difficulty Japan faces in receiving such cooperation under the current circumstances, it should view the role of its alliance with the United States as having even greater significance in ensuring the security of the region.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Jan. 5, 2014)