The new intelligence sharing agreement between Japan and South Korea could create a new international scenario, where regional coalitions take the place of a US super-protector, Juan Lopez-Aranguren writes.
A classic Latin adage teaches us: Si vis pacem, para bellum (“If you want peace, prepare for war”). One of the most obvious displays of this statement was the Cold War’s mutual assured destruction doctrine that helped avoid a global escalation of conflict.
Now, with the emergence of the information society and globalisation, the sharing of intelligence plays an even bigger role in security. In an era where threats to security are not limited to state actors but also range from individual lone wolves to extremist religious movements, the need for efficient preemption has become vital.
In light of this new global phenomenon, the long-awaited announcement of an intelligence-sharing deal signed by Japan and South Korea has recently been made. The novelty of this agreement is that the exchange of information will be carried out bilaterally between both countries without using the US as an intermediary.
The agreement was ratified in Seoul by South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo and the Japanese ambassador, Yasumasa Nagamine. It was signed on the sixth anniversary of the North Korean bombing of the island of Yeonpyeong, where four South Koreans were killed, which many saw as an attempt to reduce the hostility that some South Koreans feel towards the agreement. This adverse public sentiment had been delaying the signing since 2012 and reflects the resentment that exists within certain sectors of South Korean society towards the ghosts of the Japanese militaristic past, ahead of a real concern with the current North Korean threat.
The intelligence-sharing agreement is also a very important step to take at the advent of the Trump era, an issue that is likely to have played a crucial role in seeing this deal finally materialise. Trump’s decision to adopt an isolationistic stance in the field of international security forces US allies, especially Japan and South Korea, to adopt a more proactive profile than what they had been maintaining until now under the comfortable protection of the American nuclear umbrella. Regardless of whether Trump’s threats are real or have been exaggerated as an electoral strategy to connect with discontented middle-class American voters, the shift in the international paradigm is clear. It forces Japanese and South Korean societies to adopt the uncomfortable role of taking on the political, economic and social costs that come with greater protagonism in their defence against the North Korean threat.
The new intelligence sharing agreement faces three major challenges. The first affects the Japanese intelligence services: a reformulation is essential to end the overlap between two opposing models of intelligence (the centralised American one and the decentralised British one) while at the same time it must be orientated towards communication for the following reasons. First, digital mass media has a direct effect on the articulation of sub-state threats in the globalised world of the 21st century (jihadist lone wolves are being radicalised and coordinated via the Internet in Europe). Second, threats to security are largely made with a propagandistic purpose (terrorist attacks seek to sway public opinion in order to achieve beneficial political agreements stemming from this fear).
The second challenge facing this agreement concerns the hostility of South Korean public opinion. Far from being a question buried in the past, criticisms of Japanese military history periodically resurface in different, potentially allied, Asian societies such as Taiwan, South Korea or Hong Kong. This can make it difficult to create a regional alliance between Asian democratic countries, much to the despair of the US. In this sense, issues such as the treatment of Korean comfort women play a fundamental role in any regional security policy achievement.
The third challenge concerns diplomatic relations to third states, especially with respect to China as a global actor. Although Beijing has long since orphaned the North Korean regime by not vetoing the UN’s strict sanctions against it, the emergence of a Tokyo-Seoul security axis may be a challenge too explicit for Beijing to ignore—especially at a time when conflicts with Japan over the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands have increased. This issue will test the diplomatic machinery of Seoul and Tokyo in minimising the cost that this agreement will undoubtedly have, something of particular concern since Japan is the third largest investor in the Asian giant.
Only time will tell if South Korea and Japan can overcome these challenges and forge what could be a new international scenario based on coalitions of regional actors instead of an American super-actor guaranteeing (and paying for) the security of its allies. If this were so, the pacem of the future would be achieved by building on the solid foundations of the current intelligence exchange.