South Korea on Tuesday denied a Japanese media report that Seoul and Tokyo are preparing a joint declaration to bolster military cooperation. "We have neither negotiated nor considered it," a government official said, adding, "Bolstering bilateral military cooperation is merely Japan's wish." Another said, "There are many obstacles that must be overcome for Japan to boost security cooperation with South Korea." The official complained that Tokyo "is leaking information to the press that has yet to be discussed with us."
The biggest obstacle is possible opposition from the South Korean public. The two countries remain in conflict over compensation and apologies for atrocities committed during World War II as well as South Korea's sovereignty over the Dokdo Islets. As a result, a majority of South Koreans are distrustful of Japan. Moreover, bolstered military cooperation between South Korea and Japan could trigger strong opposition from China.
If South Korea pursues strengthened military cooperation with Japan, it not only risks alienating its public, but could also prompt China to strengthen military cooperation with North Korea. A high-ranking government official said, "A greater role by Japan's Self-Defense Forces is a contentious issue even in Japan and there are many regulatory limitations as well, such as curbs on Tokyo's right to wage war" except in self-defense.
While hesitating to confirm the prospect of a military pact, Seoul did acknowledge that the two countries are looking into signing an agreement on sharing military secrets or military supplies. One official with a national security agency said, "We have signed pacts on sharing military secrets with 21 countries, so there is no need to blow things out of proportion." Seoul has such a pact with the U.S. and Washington with Tokyo. But no such agreement exists between Seoul and Tokyo.
While revising their military pact in 1996, Washington and Tokyo agreed to bolster the role of Japan's military from offering only military installations in times of conflict on the Korean Peninsula to providing supplies and military information as well. The U.S. and Japan, however, stipulated that the Self-Defense Forces will operate outside of the Korean Peninsula and South Korea's territorial waters.
"North Korea claims its nuclear weapons are for defensive purposes or to counter a U.S. threat, but South Korea and Japan fall within the range of such weapons," a diplomatic source said. With both countries exposed to the North Korean threat, they have many security issues of mutual concern to discuss, while the U.S. also seeks to bolster trilateral military ties between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo to keep China in check, as well as prevent North Korean provocations.