President Obama is set to tour the Asia Pacific starting April 23 to strengthen military alliances and promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) in line with the U.S. “Pivot to Asia” strategy.
Zoom in Korea spoke with progressive activists in three of the countries Obama is set to visit – Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines – about what’s on the agenda for his upcoming trip and how progressive movements in Asia Pacific are preparing for his visit. This is part 2 of a 3-part series.
Ju Je-jun is the Director of Policy of the Korean Alliance of People’s Movements, a united front for self-reliance, peace, equality and reunification.
Oh Hye-ran is the former Secretary General of Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea (SPARK). She is currently the co-director of the National Task Force to Oppose the Jeju Naval Base Construction and a member of the Peace and Reunification Research Institute.
What is on Obama’s agenda for his upcoming trip to South Korea?
Ju – Mainly 4 things – strengthening the US-ROK alliance, denuclearization of North Korea, continued implementation of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).
Oh – Strengthening the US-ROK alliance specifically includes – delaying the transfer of wartime operational control, signing a South Korea-U.S.-Japan military information sharing pact, strengthening missile defense cooperation, and strengthening trilateral (South Korea-U.S.-Japan) military exercises.
South Korea, United States, and Japan held trilateral defense talks on April 17-18 in Washington D.C. It’s presumed that the United States and South Korea agreed to delay the transfer of wartime operational control at this meeting and will formally announce it during Obama’s visit in South Korea.
Talk about the military information sharing agreement between Japan and South Korea – what is it?
Ju – The most critical issue for the U.S.-led trilateral alliance is the signing of a military information sharing pact between Japan and South Korea. In 2002, they tried to pass this and ultimately failed. This year, they will pursue it again.
To explain the Japan-South Korea military information sharing agreement – currently, if China or North Korea were to launch a ballistic missile, Japan, South Korea, and the United States would each gather information about the missile through their own missile defense radars. And since South Korea and Japan do not have a military information sharing agreement, Japan and South Korea would each share their information with the United States but not with each other. From the U.S. perspective, this is not an efficient system. If South Korea and Japan could directly share information, information gathering would be much more efficient and comprehensive. The United States has been requesting this for a long time. So in 2012, at U.S.’ request, the former Lee Myung-bak government tried to pass this through, but ultimately failed due to public opposition.
Recently, the leaders of the three countries met at the Hague, and slightly eased tensions between South Korea and Japan. The United States will press this issue again this year.
Oh – The military information sharing agreement between South Korea and Japan will become a key part of trilateral military operations, which includes, as a critical component, preemptive strike and missile defense against North Korea.
Although the South Korean Defense Ministry denies it, the South Korean media reported that on the agenda of the April 17-18 trilateral defense meeting in Washington D.C. is the adoption of a memorandum of agreement (MOU) among South Korea, United States and Japan on sharing military information. Adopting an MOU among the three countries, as opposed to a bilateral agreement between South Korea and Japan, is a tactic to avoid the same type of public outcry two years ago against military cooperation between South Korea and Japan. And adopting an MOU, as opposed to signing a formal agreement, is a ploy to bypass parliamentarian procedure.
The U.S. “Asia pivot” strategy requires increasing the role of Japan and South Korea’s militaries in the region and strengthening a trilateral alliance among the three countries. What is your view on this?
Ju – U.S. “pivot to Asia” strategy was first mentioned in the 2010 U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). QDR is revised every four years. In the 2014 QDR, U.S. commitment to the Asia pivot strategy remains unchanged. If we consider 2010 to 2014 the initial phase of the U.S. pivot to Asia, now we are entering a new stage where the doctrine is normalized, and central to it is the militarization of Japan.
Leaning on Japan is critical for the United States since its budget is constrained. The United States makes Japan its henchman and this enables Japan’s reemergence as a military power.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was in China recently. Speaking of the Diaoyu/Senkaku territorial dispute, he reiterated U.S.’ position that it is bound by its Mutual Defense Treaty with Japan to back Japan in a potential conflict. China’s defense minister countered by saying China won’t compromise its “territorial sovereignty” and will “fight any battle and win.” It was a very rough diplomatic exchange.
The trilateral alliance is definitely a threat to peace in Northeast Asia and the Korean peninsula. The trilateral alliance reinforces an adversarial relationship with China and North Korea and continues war threats. Increased war threats means money that should be spent on services for the people is diverted to support the military budget, which ultimately goes to the United States to pay for Global Hawk and other weapons systems.
Oh – The addition of the offensive capability of Japan’s Self Defense Forces to the preemptive strike capability of the combined US-ROK forces means Northeast Asia will be faced with constant nuclear threats and chronic military competition that surpasses that of the Cold War. This will make the possibility of resolving the North Korea nuclear problem and the adoption of a Peace Treaty even more remote.
The United States plans to deploy two Aegis destroyers and an additional x-band radar near Tokyo. It’s a critical time for organizations in the United States, Japan, and South Korea to step up cooperation and solidarity to oppose missile defense.
The United States supports Japan’s change to collective self-defense. What will be the impact on Korea?
Ju – The impact will certainly be huge. Collective self-defense makes it possible for Japan’s Self Defense Forces to set foot again on the Korean peninsula. It is a grave threat to peace. Collective self defense is based on a reinterpretation of Japan’s constitution. Starting this month, scholars in Japan will draft a proposal and make it formal. And approving it is U.S.’ top priority. This makes Obama’s state visit very important for Abe.
The U.S. “pivot to Asia” strategy uses the so-called North Korea nuclear threat as justification. What’s your view on this?
Ju – Earlier this year, North-South relations were hopeful. Both sides agreed to stop slandering each other and hold inter-Korean dialogue. So on February 25, we had reunions of separated families in Mount Geumgang.
But soon after, on February 28, John Kerry called North Korea an “evil place”. This was a signal to South Korea to slow down in its talks with the North. Since then, the possibility of regularizing family reunions has become faint, and US-ROK joint military exercises started around that time. On March 25, they carried out “Double dragon,” an amphibian landing exercise, the largest in 21 years, and it was broadcast on national TV. They flew 20-plus Ospreys and broadcast it on TV. After Kerry’s “North Korea is evil” comment, followed by large scale war exercises, it’s not difficult to see why North Korea reached the conclusion that the United States and South Korea are not sincere about talks.
At the Hague summit, the three heads of state (U.S., Japan, South Korea) reiterated the position that they will not talk unless North Korea denuclearizes, so this means the United States has abandoned the idea of direct talks and will continue its policy of avoidance. It was after that, on April 4, that North Korea raised the possibility of a “new form of nuclear test”. Their message is clear – “If you reject talks, we will continue to strengthen our nuclear deterrence capability.”
Then came Park Geun-hye’s Dresden speech, which in my opinion was not all negative. But that prompted North Korea to launch a series of verbal personal attacks against Park Geun-hye.
For his part, I believe Obama is merely trying to manage North Korea, at least until the mid-term elections in November. North Korea’s nuclear tests and satellite launches will only hurt the mid-term elections, but public opinion in the United States won’t allow him to start talks with North Korea and resume the six party talks. So at least until November, he will try his best to manage the North Korea problem to make sure it doesn’t become worse. And North Korea knows this well, so it will continuously do things to challenge the U.S. strategy of avoidance and delay and won’t make it easy for the United States to manage until the November election.
Oh – It should be made clear that the solution to North Korea’s nuclear and missile problem ultimately lies not in military confrontation but in denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and negotiating a Peace Treaty.
Let’s talk about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). What’s the current situation in South Korea vis a vis the TPPA?
Ju – The Park Geun-hye government’s trade strategy is called the “linchpin strategy” – i.e. enter into more free trade agreements (FTA) and make South Korea a linchpin of accelerated economic integration. Korea already has an FTA with the EU. And it will pursue a trade agreement with China as well as join the TPPA.
The FTA with China will definitely benefit South Korea’s chaebols since China’s market is vast and its tariffs are normally quite high. So Park Geun-hye intends to negotiate the China-South Korea FTA one step further towards completion, then pursue the TPPA. Park Geun-hye has already met with President Xi Jinping four times. (She only met with Obama twice.) That’s how much Park Geun-hye considers China important. Everyone knows the TPPA is about isolating China, so even though China doesn’t say it, it doesn’t like the idea of South Korea joining the TPPA. Xi wants to stop South Korea from becoming too deeply integrated in its alliance with the United States and Japan.
So far, the Park Geun-hye government’s basic position has been complete the FTA with China first, then pursue the TPPA. So we thought South Korea joining the TPPA is not an urgent issue. But now the government’s position is it will finish the broad strokes outline of the agreement with China by as early as June, then immediately join the TPPA.
Talk about the preconditions for joining the TPPA.
Ju – The TPPA is not a bilateral but a multilateral agreement. Once a country expresses its desire to join, it has to first go through preliminary negotiations with the 11 member countries. After that, if each member country’s demands are met, then the member countries go through a process of approving the country to join. And ultimately, the United States has to give its final stamp of approval. The country that wishes to join must meet each member country’s demands to be approved. It’s like paying an entrance fee to join the TPPA; each member country demands an entrance fee. At this stage, South Korea is busy paying all the requisite entrance fees.
For example, South Korea and Canada had begun FTA negotiations back in 2006, the same time as the Korea-US FTA. But the talks were stalled in 2008 during South Korea’s candlelight protests against beef imports due to public scare about mad cow disease. Canada’s BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) problem was more serious than the United States. Even recently, in 2012, they discovered another case of mad cow disease in Canada. So in the midst of the public scare, it was impossible to complete the negotiations and it was shelved for years. Then, as soon as South Korea announced its intention to join the TPPA last November and started to pay its entrance fees, the Canada-Korea FTA was quickly ratified in just two months. Canada’s demand was for South Korea to eliminate its 40% tariff for Canada’s beef exports. That was South Korea’s entrance fee to Canada.
South Korea already has bilateral FTAs with almost all the TPPA member countries but not with Japan. So for South Korea, the TPPA, for all intents and purposes, would be an FTA with Japan. And many people believe if South Korea enters into an FTA with Japan, it, especially its auto industry, has a lot to lose. Even the chaebols, like Hyundai Auto, are not eager to join the TPPA. But Obama is in a rush to complete the TPPA as he needs something to show for by the mid-term election so he’s increasing pressure on South Korea to join.
It should be said that joining and participating in the TPPA are two different things. Participating means you participate in the negotiations and can make demands for exemptions for your sensitive issues or sectors. Joining means you become a party to the agreement after all negotiations are finished. Of course it’s more advantageous for South Korea to be a participant, but the United States doesn’t want this, because if South Korea enters the negotiations, it will be delayed even further. So the United States has been saying to South Korea, “You can join but only after negotiations are done.” South Korea expressed its intention to join last November and wanted to enter the negotiations quickly, but it’s the United States that’s been holding it back.
At any rate, the South Korean government recently announced that before the end of the year, it will announce its position on joining the TPPA. It will eventually join; the only question is when.
What’s happening right now in the U.S.-Japan TPPA talks?
Ju – This is a very important question. Japans wants to protect four key areas – rice, barley, dairy, and sugar. So far, there had been little progress in the U.S.-Japan talks as Japan has been unwilling to budge. Reaching an agreement between the United States and Japan on the overall framework is critical for the TPPA to pass.
Japan has been playing the game very shrewdly. In the US-Japan strategic discussions on the TPPA in February, Japan did not budge on its four key areas. Japan has been saying, “Give us an exemption in these four areas and we are willing to compromise in other areas.” But if the United States gives exemptions to Japan, it will have to give exemptions to other countries, so its goal is to minimize exemptions. This month, they’re meeting again. But before meeting again with the United States, Japan negotiated a deal with Australia. Japan agreed to lower its 39.5% beef tariff by 10-20% in the next 15 to 20 years. (By comparison, in the Korea-US FTA, South Korea agreed to completely eliminate its 40% beef tariff in 15 years.) Japan was able to protect its beef industry in its deal with Australia, and now it is in a position to say to the United States, “Look, Australia is compromising. Why aren’t you?”
This month, in its continued talks with the United States, Japan has said it will lower its beef tariff to 10% if the United States is willing to recognize exemptions for its other sensitive areas – rice, sugar, etc. This puts the United States in an awkward position. U.S. Trade Representative Froman and the U.S.’ chief negotiator went to Japan recently for what they called the final round of negotiation. This means until April 23, when Obama is expected to land in Japan, they will negotiate until they reach a final agreement.
Obama’s original itinerary for his upcoming Asia tour was to spend two days in Japan and two days in South Korea. Mainichi News recently reported that Obama will extend his stay in Japan to three days. This is the first U.S. state visit to Japan in eighteen years. Extending Obama’s stay to three days probably means Japan has a a large present for Obama in return. What could this be? Experts predict Japan has expressed willingness to make concessions in the TPPA negotiation.
What actions are being planned for Obama’s visit to South Korea?
Ju – Before his visit, we are organizing an international symposium to develop a plan to counter the TPPA. We will also hold a mass demonstration to denounce the Park Geun-hye government for undermining democracy and destroying people’s livelihood – i.e. opening up the rice market, privatizing public industries and joining the TPPA, etc.
We are carrying out a 10,000 signature petition campaign to oppose Japan’s remilitarization and to demand a Peace Treaty on the Korean peninsula. We are also organizing a photo exhibit on the dangers of Japan’s remilitarization.
When Obama visits South Korea, we will hold a mass candlelight protest to oppose U.S. support of Japan’s remilitarization, the TPPA, and to call for a Peace Treaty on the Korean peninsula.
Oh – Prior to Obama’s visit, we will also hold press conferences and protests outside the Blue House and the U.S. and Japanese embassies to oppose the delay of wartime operational control, Japan’s collective self defense, missile defense, and the South Korea-Japan military agreement.
In addition, SPARK is producing a teaching manual and organizing a peace forum on Japan’s collective self defense as well as a producing a research paper on the problems related to missile defense participation.
Go to Part 1 – Interview with Nato Reyes, Secretary General of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN), Philippines
Go to Part 3 – Interview with Yukiko Nagaya, member of the Japan branch of the Asia Wide Campaign against U.S.-Japanese Domination and Aggression of Asia; and Keisuke Fuse, Director of the International Bureau of Japan’s National Confederation of Trade Unions Zenroren