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South Korea's Domestic Politics Undermine Strategic Interests

It is well known that sports fans from North and South Korea openly support each other’s soccer teams except when the two nations square up, as occurred this week in the men’s final of the 17th Asian Games—the Olympics of Asia, involving 45 countries—currently taking place in Incheon, South Korea. In a region where the two Koreas are the only countries formally at war with each other, and sports are rarely divorced from politics, cheering on the enemy is something of a curiosity. Indeed, officials from the South Korean Games committee named Japan as the team they really wanted to beat.

Then again, South Korean politics are themselves something of a curiosity right now. Strategic thinkers in Seoul are overwhelmingly preoccupied with their nuclear-armed northern neighbor, which poses an existential threat to the country, but its domestic politics are squarely aimed against longtime rival Japan. The problem is that a cooperative and powerful Japan is increasingly important to Seoul’s strategic interests, meaning that South Korea’s politicians and its population will have to eventually make difficult compromises to repair relations with Japan.

The depth of popular enmity by South Koreans toward Japan is demonstrated by a farcical event in December 2013, when South Korean peacekeeping forces in Sudan faced imminent threat and issued a desperate call for more ammunition. Given that Japan’s military was the only other entity on the ground with the same caliber ammunition, Tokyo promptly authorized its Self-Defense Forces to hand over ten thousand bullets to the Koreans. But the ensuing public uproar in South Korea forced the return of the bullets, suggesting that the popular antipathy toward Japan is more powerful than the desire to ensure that one’s own troops are adequately armed.

This episode is consistent with surveys and polls that the population in South Korea is more concerned about imagined Japanese re-militarization than they are with the military threat presented by a nuclear-armed North Korea. Likewise, Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seen as more worrying than China under President Xi Jinping, despite Beijing’s rapid militarization or the fact that China protects, supplies, and sustains North Korea’s regime and its military. Regarding China, one must remember that while Japan’s defense budget has been stagnant for all but two of the last ten years, and even then only rose 0.8 percent in 2013, with a projected rise of 2.4 percent in 2014, China’s has been increasing at double-digit rates for two decades, and its 2014 military budget is now three times the size of Japan’s.

The Koreans’ nationalist attitude stems from the Japanese colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945. The behavior of Japanese troops during the war, especially the use of Koreans as “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers, has left real wounds. Yet politicians in Seoul have at different times played to these domestic sentiments for political gain. The country’s current leader, President Park Geun-hye, has gone even further than her predecessors, insisting that no bilateral meeting at the head-of-government level would occur between South Korea and Japan until Japan demonstrated more sincere remorse for its wartime behavior.

Unfortunately, populist politics are not serving strategic interests. Take the example of Seoul joining with Beijing to condemn Tokyo’s reinterpretation of its Constitution to allow “collective self-defense”—a fancy term for coming to the aid of Japan’s allies if the country’s interests are at stake. If large numbers of the North Korean army—numbering some 1.2 million in total—were to invade South Korea, American forces would need a very large number of military personnel and assets to repel Pyongyang’s troops. For this to occur, America would almost certainly need to use Japanese military bases. Without Abe’s constitutional reinterpretation, this would be illegal.

Moreover, Abe is insistent that Washington still needs Tokyo’s explicit acquiescence if the American military is to use its troops stationed on Japanese bases for defending another country under the terms of the US-Japan security agreement. This means that Seoul can hardly afford for its political spat with Tokyo to deteriorate further when it needs the agreement of Japan in countering what is persistently the greatest strategic and military threat to its country.

Despite South Korea’s relatively benign view of China, the reality is that both North Korea and China seek to dilute the effectiveness of the America-led alliance system in the region, figuring correctly that such a system is designed to keep them in check. The centerpiece of the security system is the US-Japan alliance because of what both countries bring to the table as a combined and stand-alone force. Despite its so-called “pacifist” Constitution, the Japanese navy and air force are still more than a match for China’s. This means that Japan is the only Asian power that can make a contribution to the American-led security system powerful enough to shape the regional balance in such a system. If the alliance system is to endure and adapt vis-à-vis China’s relative erosion of American strategic and military pre-eminence, key regional allies will have to take up more of the security burden from America than they have in the past. The bottom line is that a hesitant and penitent Japan is ill-suited to South Korea’s strategic interests, even if such a Japan is popular among South Koreans.

All of this should serve as a rude awakening to Seoul’s politicians. While soccer fans will continue to favor the North Koreans over the Japanese, good populist politics are not the same as smart strategic thinking. Seoul may not like Abe’s Japan, but it must confront the reality that it needs such a Japan more than it is prepared to admit.

John Lee is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and an adjunct professor at the University of Sydney.

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