Activists in Seoul denounce Japan's comments that it could send forces… (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters )
Reporting from Seoul and Tokyo — North Korea's deadly shelling of a Yellow Sea island last month not only raised the specter of war on the Korean peninsula, it also laid bare the political tensions between two key U.S. allies: Japan and South Korea.
The traditionally uneasy relationship between Tokyo and Seoul turned chillier last week when Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan said his country's military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, could be dispatched to South Korea to whisk Japanese nationals out of harm's way. The comments were meant to reassure Japanese citizens about potential threats from North Korea or China, but instead they raised concerns about the likelihood of Japan's rearmament.
Tokyo's decades-long occupation of the peninsula in the early 20th century has many South Koreans focused more on Japan's historic wrongs than any current security threats.
"Many Koreans still recall the brutality of Japanese colonization, so it's still not possible to talk of better military ties with Tokyo," said Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at Seoul's Institute for National Security Strategy. "We will not accept any military involvement with Japan, no matter what the outside threat."
Tokyo and Seoul would appear to be closely aligned against the dual potential threats of China's military expansion and a nuclear-armed North Korea. Both Japan and South Korea have security agreements with the U.S., and both have held separate naval drills with U.S. forces in recent weeks.
Experts on Asia note that Japan's post- World War II pacifist constitution imposes strict limits on its military. Even so, Japan and South Korea remain wary of closer military ties despite a warming of economic and cultural relations.
During a visit to Asia last week, U.S. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, invited Japan to take part in American military exercises with South Korea, but it declined.
Though such maneuvers can be conducted with the U.S. under the American-Japanese security pact, Tokyo has no such agreement with Seoul, and Japan wants to avoid any backlash against a display of military might, analysts say.
Kan appeared to open old wounds when he said, "We need to carefully proceed in consultations with South Korea about whether they would let in aircraft from Japan's Self-Defense Forces."
A senior Japanese government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Tokyo had not reached out to Seoul regarding any scenario that would bring Japanese troops to the Korean peninsula.
"How we would protect Japanese overseas in various contingencies is a hypothetical question," he said, "and any country would be prepared to do the same thing."
Some experts think Kan's comments were aimed at shoring up support at home, where his approval rating has plummeted to 21%, the lowest since he took office in June, pollsters say. The popularity swoon is fueled in part by discontent over the government's handling of recent diplomatic rows with Beijing, including Tokyo's seizure this summer of a Chinese fishing trawler that had collided with two coast guard vessels off the Japanese coast.
"South Korea gets concerned over anything involving Japan increasing certain types of military capabilities or the erosion of legal constraints," said Daniel Pinkston, a Korea expert for the think tank International Crisis Group. "That makes them very uneasy, much faster than it does the U.S."
Seoul is also closely watching as Japan's Defense Ministry updates its National Defense Program Guideline, the first since 2004 and the first since Kan's Democratic Party of Japan rose to power last year.
According to the Nikkei, a major Japanese daily, the government is adopting a new "dynamic defense" strategy that concentrates more of the country's forces in the southern islands to keep tabs on China and respond to terrorist attacks and other threats. The realignment, to be announced this week, also calls for greater integration with U.S. forces in the region.
South Korea has little to fear from Kan's remark, which came after North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island on Nov. 23, killing four people, said Sheila Smith, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. The South Korean military was conducting drills near the island last month, and the North indicated that it considered the exercises preparation for an invasion.
"The Japanese don't have any ambition to be part of the conflict on the Korean peninsula," Smith said. "What has gotten people worried is the current tempo of tensions in the Koreas. Many nations are looking at their own contingency plans and saying, 'Oh my God, what if?' "
Times staff writer Glionna reported from Seoul and special correspondent Hall from Tokyo.