Unity is strength, division portends weakness. Few truths are more elementary, or obvious.
Is the whole world united against North Korea, as Western rhetoric would have us believe? Six unanimous UN Security Council resolutions in a decade condemning the DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests, with ever more stringent sanctions attached, might suggest as much.
But look more closely. UNSCR 2321, the latest and toughest, is dated November 30 – almost three months after the object of its censure, North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, on September 9.
What took them so long? Unity is not spontaneous: it has to be negotiated. China and Russia oppose pushing Kim Jong Un into a corner, or pressing him too hard. That means the U.S. has to argue, line by line, about what words to use and deeds to prescribe in each UN resolution.
Whether sanctions are enforced is another matter. Ironically, China pretends to sanction North Korea while pretending not to sanction South Korea, which it has harassed on many fronts since Seoul opted to install THAAD missile defense. Rank hypocrisy, but that’s another story.
FROM TCOG TO DTT
Well, at least the DPRK’s foes, namely the ROK and its allies, are on the same page – right? You might suppose so, both a priori and given a recent flurry of three-way meetings between South Korea, the U.S. and Japan to deal with North Korea. Over a decade ago this was formalized and named the TCOG (Trilateral Co-ordination and Oversight Group): a good account is here.
As North Korea’s neighbors, South Korea and Japan are on the frontline. Both could be forgiven a degree of irritation with the current hoopla about whether or when Kim might have, as he’s been boasting, an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could hit the U.S. mainland.
What remains hypothetical for Washington, or LA, is all too real for Tokyo and Seoul. Being right next door, it doesn’t take an ICBM: lesser missiles would suffice. Seoul indeed is within artillery range of the humorously named Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Japan had felt safe until August 1998, when without warning a DPRK missile overflew it. That toxic tocsin was quite a wake-up call. With nuclear concerns rising as well, the TCOG was launched in April 1999.
18 years on, the worries have only grown. So this trio must still coordinate, as they’ve done often of late in a variety of security and diplomatic contexts. On October 14 their top brass met in Washington, the third such meeting since July 2014. Then on November 23 South Korea and Japan signed a long-delayed accord to share military intelligence, called GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement).
Such sharing actually took place for the first time in Seoul on December 16, alongside another three-way meeting with the U.S.: the Eighth Defense Trilateral Talks (DTT), held annually between defense policy officials.
What remains hypothetical for Washington, or LA, is all too real for Tokyo and Seoul
Most recently, the three countries’ deputy foreign ministers met in Washington on January 5: their sixth meeting in two years. By then things were going pear-shaped – though you’d never guess from the State Department’s upbeat official factsheet or the anodyne press conference.
In truth, this trilateral co-operation has been neither continuous nor always smooth. The formal TCOG process lapsed under George W Bush, due to policy and procedural differences well discussed by Yoichi Funabashi in his invaluable 2007 bookThe Peninsula Question.
Suffice to say, as has always been true and ever will be, even close allies don’t always agree on how to handle a tough nut like North Korea – especially when elections produce regime change. Bill Clinton was on the same page with Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s sunshine approach of engaging Pyongyang, but Dubya, at first, emphatically wasn’t.
It was absurd for Park Geun-hye to spend her first two years boycotting Abe
TORPEDOED BY HISTORY
More troubling, and our main concern here, is when extraneous ancient animosities torpedo unity.
This happens time and again between Japan and South Korea. Neither side seems able to forget Japan’s pre-1945 imperial past, including its brutal colonization of Korea and issues such as sexual slavery (the so-called comfort women), or Japanese ministers visiting the Yasukuni shrine which commemorates – among many others – several class A war criminals. There’s also an ongoing dispute over the Dokdo islet, which Japan claims and calls Takeshima.
South Korea’s previous president, the conservative Lee Myung-bak (himself born in Japan), mostly got on with Tokyo – until a contretemps in his final months in 2012. The GSOMIA was actually agreed on his watch; Lee tried to sneak it through the National Assembly, but the opposition were having none of that. Bizarrely Lee then went to the other extreme, becoming the first ROK president to actually set foot on Dokdo for a bit of patriotic posturing.
Across the Sea of No Agreed Name – never say “Sea of Japan” to a Korean: it’s their East Sea, and Seoul is campaigning to get it renamed on every map everywhere – the return of Shinzo Abe as prime minister in December 2012 exacerbated matters. Abe’s right-wing nationalism rubs Koreans up the wrong way on several fronts: whitewashing pre-1945 history, an upsurge in Yasukuni visits, and his bid to expand and free up Japan’s armed forces.
Even so, it was absurd for Park Geun-hye to spend her first two years boycotting Abe, while fawning over China’s Xi Jinping. That sharp tilt made no sense and was clearly unsustainable, for two close neighbors and U.S. allies which are both threatened by North Korea.
Not till late 2015, halfway through Park’s five-year term – Abe, by contrast, may serve twice as long – did the two make up and meet. A new bilateral agreement signed in December 2015, including financial aid for the few surviving comfort women, was hailed by both governments as settling the past, turning the page and starting a new chapter in their relationship.
In your dreams. With Park already unpopular, the opposition attacked the new accord. 34 of the 46 surviving comfort women accepted the package, but the dozen who didn’t and their activist supporters make a lot more noise. A statue of a comfort woman opposite Japan’s embassy in Seoul is still there, and another has appeared outside its consulate in Busan.
The latter was the last straw for Tokyo. On January 6, just hours (given the time difference) after the show of bonhomie in DC, Japan recalled its ambassador from Seoul and its consul from Busan. It also suspended talks on renewing a currency swap arrangement, and canceled other planned economic talks. So much for the final settlement and new chapter.
No easy or early solution is in sight. Abe is riding high, but he daren’t alienate his assertive right-wing support base. Park, by contrast, is out of action, having been impeached, leaving a power vacuum in Seoul. The acting president, prime minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, is weak and has no mandate or inclination for unpopular decisions. With presidential elections less than a year away, maybe much sooner, there are no Korean votes in being nice to Japan and plenty in giving Tokyo the finger. Foolhardy would s/he be who tried to shift either of those statues.
Bottom line: This is a bad time for the ROK to be leaderless and rudderless
NO JOINT SUB-DRILL
And now even the new GSOMIA is unraveling, dashing hopes (surely overblown) that this would boost the U.S. pivot to Asia or could even form the basis for an East Asian version of NATO. On January 10 the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbunreported that Seoul has nixed the idea, floated at December’s DTT meeting, of holding a joint trilateral anti-submarine drill. Vulnerable underwater to North Korean sneak attacks – remember the Cheonan – the South could use a look at Japan’s advanced anti-sub technology.
Yet the ROK says such a drill would be premature. As the Asahi noted: “A backlash is raging against choices made during Park’s presidency.” Indeed, some may yet be undone. Seoul’s political limbo will continue for weeks if not months, and then Park’s successor may well lean left. Minjoo, the main opposition party, attacked the “disgraceful and unpatriotic negotiations” which led to GSOMIA. If they win power, the accord may prove a dead letter.
All this is depressing – except to Kim Jong Un. Like his father and grandfather before him, Kim is adept at exploiting his foes’ divisions. While Pyongyang media gloat at Park Geun-hye’s fate, Kim must rejoice to see Seoul and Tokyo unable to work together against him.
There are no Korean votes in being nice to Japan and plenty in giving Tokyo the finger
The broader picture is bleak too. We are entering an era of rising national assertiveness, with President Trump imminent (god help us) and China flexing its muscles. On January 9 Chinese warplanes flew a long sortie northeast, entering South Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and prompting both ROK and Japanese fighters to scramble. Just testing.
Bottom line: this is a bad time for the ROK to be leaderless and rudderless. And it’s long past time for South Korea and Japan to finally bury the past and focus on building the future. With many bonds in culture and economics as well as security, this pair ought to be close friends.
Europe offers a precedent. After 1945, France and Germany managed to transcend a history of enmity – three wars in 70 years – and build what became the EU. Sadly, East Asia’s elites lack that vision or courage, each preferring to hunker in their own bunker. They will regret it.
Feature image: Kremlin.ru
Unity is strength, division portends weakness. Few truths are more elementary, or obvious.Is the whole world united against North Korea, as Western rhetoric would have us believe? Six unanimous UN Security Council resolutions in a decade condemning the DPRK’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests, with ever more stringent sanctions attached, might suggest as much.But look more closely.
Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he taught sociology at the Universities of Hull, Dar es Salaam and Leeds from 1971 to 1997. Having followed Korean affairs since 1968, since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on Korea: writing, lecturing and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide.