Could North Korea bring South Korea and Japan together?

If signed, two proposed military cooperation agreements to deal with North Korea would be the first such agreements between the two nations since Japan’s occupation of Korea in the early 20th century.

Lee Jin-man/Reuters
South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin (l.) shakes hands with Japan's Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa before their meeting at the Defense Ministry in Seoul on Jan. 10.

South Korean and Japanese Defense chiefs meeting in Seoul on Monday appear to be working toward strengthening military cooperation between the two nations. The meeting laid the groundwork for the exchange of military supplies and services and the sharing of intelligence, two items deemed essential to countering any future North Korean aggression.

In a joint statement, Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and his Seoul counterpart, Kim Kwan-jin, stressed the importance of coordinating military efforts to rein in North Korea.

“The two ministers shared views that North Korea's recent provocations, including the artillery strike on Yeonpyeong Island and the revelation of its uranium enrichment facility, can never be tolerated,” the statement read.

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The ministers discussed signing two pacts in the future, the first of which would allow the two nations to share military supplies during peacekeeping and disaster relief operations.The second, the “General Security of Military Information Agreement,” would set up a system for the exchange of military secrets. Seoul and Tokyo have held talks on the creation of the GSMIA in the past, but failed to sign the agreement.

South Korea has this sort of agreement – in terms of military intelligence sharing – with 21 other countries, but not Japan,” Lee Jung-hoon, professor of international relations at Yonsei University, says.

"There are still some hang-ups in South Korea," he says. Koreans aren't exactly ready for an official alliance with Japan, which still conjures images of the colonial era for many Koreans.

Japan and South Korea warm?

Japan occupied Korea for 35 years as part of its imperialist expansion before World War II. Despite the fact that six decades have past since the end of that colonization, South Korean politicians remain cautious about strengthening their relationship with Japan.

North Korea’s attack on Yeonpyeong Island in November, however, which killed two South Korean soldiers and two civilians, along with its unveiling of a uranium enrichment facility has given new relevance to military cooperation between Tokyo and Seoul.

The agreements would allow South Korea and Japan to fluidly exchange intelligence on North Korea’s weapon programs. If signed, the proposed military cooperation agreements would be the first such agreement between the two nations since Japan’s occupation of Korea.

“The US has a very close military alliance between both Japan and South Korea. So this is the missing link, between South Korea and Japan,” says Professor Lee. “It could serve to keep the pressure on North Korea.”

The meeting between Defense ministers comes as North Korea is pushing for inter-Korean dialogue. On Saturday, North Korea formally proposed “an unconditional and early opening of the talks between the authorities of the North and the South."

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Window into the North's economic situation

Pyongyang also urged Seoul to consider resuming tours to the South Korean-built Mount Kumgang resort, located in southeastern North Korea. The resort was a major source of income to the North until tourism programs were suspended in 2008 after a South Korean tourist who wandered into a restricted area was shot dead.

North Korea’s repeated calls for inter-Korean dialogue underscore Pyongyang’s dire economic situation.

The Korea Finance Corp., run by the Seoul government, reported on Sunday that North Korea’s total trade dropped to $3.41 billion in 2009, the largest year-on-year percentage drop since 1998. A similar study, released by Statistics Korea last week, found that as of 2009 South Korea’s gross national income was 37 times larger than that of the North.

North Korea’s economy is expected to have taken further hits in 2010. Seoul froze almost all inter-Korean trade and assistance last May after an international panel found Pyongyang responsible for the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, which killed 46 sailors. Analysts here believe that one of North Korea’s first demands in any future dialogues that take place will be for the resumption of aid and trade with the South.

“For the North Korean economy to get back on track, inter-Korean trade has to be resumed and aid from the international community should be expanded,” an official at the Korea Finance Corporation told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

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