Japan and South Korea hold first military talks in nearly two years

February 26, 2011

Defense leaders from Japan and South Korea held talks Monday in Seoul about possible intelligence- and equipment-sharing agreements that would boost military ties between the East Asian neighbors, a step strongly encouraged by Washington.

Officials in South Korea and Japan share concern over China’s growing military capability and North Korea’s instability amid a hereditary power transfer. But tighter cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo also faces serious obstacles, particularly in South Korea, where many older citizens still feel intense bitterness over the 35-year Japanese occupation of Korea that ended in 1945.

When Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa arrived Monday for a meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, protesters rallied outside Seoul’s defense ministry headquarters. The one-day talks produced no agreement, but officials described the meeting as an initial step that could lead to the first joint military agreement between the countries since World War II.

The leaders discussed a pair of pacts, one that would allow the countries to exchange non-arms military supplies and one involving the sharing of military secrets — important as both governments search for clues about Pyongyang’s nuclear program. The talks coincided with a trip to Beijing by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is trying to rebuild military ties with China amid concerns about its increasingly powerful role in the region.

Until Monday, military leaders from Seoul and Tokyo had not met in nearly two years. But analysts note recent initial signs of improved relations, particularly in the aftermath of North Korea’s Nov. 23 shelling on Yeonpyeong Island. When the United States and Japan held military drills early last month, South Korea sent observers to participate.

Speaking here on Dec. 9, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged that South Korea and Japan “recognize the importance” of cooperation without being “hung up on what’s happened in the past.”

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of Japan’s annexation of Korea, prompting Prime Minister Naoto Kan to apologize and express “deep remorse” over the brutal colonial rule. The apology drew a mixed response in South Korea, but South Korean President Lee Myung-bak accepted it as sincere.

More recently, Kan was panned in South Korea for saying that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces might be dispatched to the Korean Peninsula in the case of emergency, seeking to rescue Japanese abductees in North Korea.

“In Seoul we have some reservations on the relationship with Japan due to past history issues,” said Yun Duk-min, an analyst at Seoul’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security. “The atmosphere in the South Korean political circle is still very cautious. But there’s been a drastic change in the security environment on the Korean Peninsula, so we share the necessity of security cooperation with Japan, I believe.”

The countries share a tight bond as key trading and cultural partners. Korean pop music groups tour in Japan. Korean dramas play on Japanese television. Military cooperation has been slow to follow, but South Korea’s defense ministry said in a statement that Monday’s meeting allowed both ministers to share “in-depth views” on regional security. The two sides, according to the statement, agreed to “expand and deepen” military exchanges.

The two pacts in discussion are known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA). The GSOMIA would allow for secure intelligence sharing, and the ACSA would allow the countries to exchange basic military supplies — even during peacekeeping operations and military drills.

harlanc@washpost.com

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