The South Korean government’s decision to back out of an intelligence sharing pact with Japan last week inspired great distress and irrational concern from US politicians, pundits and the US-Korean think tank community. Some even declared it the beginning of the end of the US-South Korean alliance. This overreaction says much about the true role of the US in East Asia and where South Korea stands within the American sphere of influence.
The axing of the intelligence pact – signed in 2016 by disgraced former president Park Geun-hye – is the ultimate conclusion of an unjust trade war started by Japan. It marks a significant turning point in the post-World War II Japanese-South Korean relationship established by the 1965 Normalization Treaty. Tim Shorrock detailed in his most recent piece at The Nation that US pressure played a major role in the South Korean government agreeing to the 1965 treaty in the first place. Though the financial package provided through this agreement was a boon to industrial development, no compensation was given to individual South Korean victims of Japanese colonialism and Japan was never forced to sincerely come to terms with the underlying crimes of their imperial era.
The US role in overlooking questions of historical wrongdoing and justice leading up to both the 1965 treaty and ultimately the 2016 intelligence pact must not be ignored. Nor should we fail to acknowledge the reason America was so keen on ensuring firm ties between the two countries to begin with, for it says much about South Korea’s status in the alliance today.
Empire of Injustice
Of course, it makes perfect sense that the US has never had any interest in reconciliation or reparation for victims of Japanese imperialism. Justice is the last thing on the US wish list.
The US made extensive use of Nazi scientist in the nascent stages of its space program and for general development of rocket technology through Operation Paperclip. The US collaborated with Japanese biological weapons researchers and used the fruits of their studies against North Koreans during the Korean War. The US has been "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world" for decades on end and – to stay in East Asia – completely obliterated Japan and North Korea as a policy in World War II and the Korean War while supporting a South Korean government that made frequent use of death squads to consolidate power post-Japanese occupation, backing massacres in the name of maintaining political stability. No sane person would turn to the US as an arbiter of justice, especially when the criminals in question can be used to further US imperial aims.
Intelligence Pact Signified a United Front for US Dominance, not Peace in East Asia
As Shorrock discusses in his piece, the US pressured Seoul to come to terms with Japan in 1965 to create a coalition, now commonly referred to as the "trilateral alliance," against the communist bloc in East Asia.
This treaty was essentially an element of the US effort to co-opt the Japanese empire into its imperial structure and make South Korea a frontline outpost. Predictably, the alliance has carried on to the present day despite the fall of the Soviet Union. A major cog in the Pacific front of the US Empire, it is now pointed directly at China, though policymakers often use North Korea as the convenient excuse for deploying weapons systems like THAAD that create unneeded tension in Sino-South Korean relations.
This remobilization of the remnants of Japan’s empire contradicts what is considered conventional wisdom in America-centric foreign policy analysis: that the US is needed to maintain peace in the region. The widening rift between Japan and South Korea is proof that this couldn’t be further from the case.
Indeed, the ongoing US military presence in East Asia has prevented true reconciliation by forcing South Korea and Japan into this unnatural alliance. The resulting tension has created a vicious cycle of discontent and distrust. This tension prolonged by the US has been turned around and used by US imperialists as proof they must "Take up the White Man’s Burden" and keep the East Asians – supposedly ever so prone to conflict if left to their own devices – from each other’s throats.
A central element of this mythology of the US as peacekeeper of East Asia is the notion that America somehow prevents Japan from remilitarizing. Yet, as a junior partner in the empire, it was inevitable Japan would eventually redevelop its military. It does so now with American encouragement. Though many South Koreans are concerned about this development, South Korea remains inextricably tied to the Japanese military through the US and will be required to work with it in the event of a future war in the region. The unraveling of the intelligence pact is just the beginning of coming to terms with the inherent contradictions of the "trilateral alliance."
Where South Korea Stands in the US-Japanese Cabal
The overwhelming pro-Japanese reaction to canceling the intelligence pact also reveals in very clear terms which country the US truly values in the supposed alliance. When it is a question of Japanese or South Korean interests, the US will side with Japan every time, mainly because Japan’s imperial aims (not the interests of the Japanese people) clearly align with America’s imperial aims (not the interests of the American people): to contain China and keep Korea divided.
The unanimous and revealing paternalistic displeasure expressed by US officials after the Moon administration’s expression of sovereignty indicates exactly where South Korea stands in the ladder of relevance in this unsavory anti-China display: firmly on the bottom rung. Indeed, situated on the frontline between the US bloc and the "other side" in East Asia (China-Russia-North Korea), South Korea will be the first target – the cannon fodder in the event of a war. Perhaps, then, it is time for South Korean leadership to seriously reconsider their relationship with the US, not just Japan.
US Reaction Suggests Fear and Loathing of Korean Peace
If this is indeed how the US reacts to a minor disturbance in its East Asian armada, it should be unambiguous how threatening the prospect of Korean peace and inter-Korean economic cooperation would be to American imperial aims. Peace could reconnect South Korea with the rest of the Eurasian continent and represent a massive economic boon. It would also eliminate the pretext for requiring American military protection, allowing Seoul to seriously consider a position of neutrality in the context of a possible US conflict with China. On the other hand, as a divided half, South Korea remains isolated in East Asia and is likely to choose American "security" in spite of potential economic consequences with regards to China down the road.
Given the overreaction to Seoul’s rare display of independence this time, one can only imagine the American response to South Korea actually pursuing unilateral peace with the North. Cutting intelligence ties with Japan already has pundits declaring another win for the DPRK (whenever South Korea acts against US interests, it is commonly presented as such – just another form of red-baiting). The South Korean government is now firmly on the US’s "Naughty List" and President Moon Jae-in shouldn’t expect much support from Washington in terms of the peace process moving forward, regardless of which party wins the next presidential election.
At the same time, as South Korea focuses on Japan, peace with North Korea has become a backburner issue and the overarching role of the US in promoting the problematic Japanese-South Korean relationship and obstructing North-South diplomacy remains largely ignored. Indeed, while it would be nice to think the annulment of the intelligence pact suggests an extended independence streak from South Korea, a presidential aide of Moon was quick to reassure panicky right-wingers at home and paternalistic overseers abroad that it would seek more military cooperation with the US as result of this development.
This should destroy any notion of the Moon administration striking out on its own to push the Korean peace process forward. Sadly, it would seem that unless South Korean public sentiment forces President Moon to do something dramatic in the years ahead, the smart money is on the peace process having already maxed itself out.
Stu Smallwood is a Korean-English translator currently based in Montreal, Canada. He lived in South Korea for eight years from 2008-2016 and has a (useless) MA in Asian Studies from Sejong University in Seoul. In addition to Antiwar.com, his writing has appeared at Global Research and the Hankyoreh. He can be reached by email at stuartsmallwood[at]gmail.com or through his Twitter handle @stu-smallwood.