TOKYO -- The security partnership among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea faces growing uncertainties, as South Korean President Park Geun-hye's offer to step down amid scandal pulls the country's focus inward amid continued provocations by Pyongyang.
North Korea has conducted several nuclear tests and fired over 20 missiles this year. The U.S. spearheaded the creation of new United Nations sanctions set to be adopted Wednesday, negotiating with a hesitant China and Russia while having the concerns of Japan and South Korea in mind.
Washington and Seoul decided in July to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system in South Korea as a precaution. The move, seen as an American attempt to neutralize Chinese missiles, drove a wedge between China and the South. Tokyo and Seoul also entered into a General Security of Military Information Agreement on Nov. 23, which lets the countries share military intelligence. Political instability in South Korea could undermine such developments.
Japan's Self-Defense Forces and the South Korean military still need to iron out specific arrangements under the bilateral pact, but the political opposition in the South already has begun fighting the agreement. "The South Korean forces are sensitive to public opinion," an SDF source said. "We can't ignore how domestic politics there could impact the deal."
"If the next South Korean administration is pro-China, there will be concerns that Japanese intelligence shared with Seoul would be leaked to Beijing," a Japanese Defense Ministry official said. Limiting the scope of information to be shared under the security agreement could be discussed, this person said.
Those close to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were shocked by Park's offer to resign. With uncertainties looming over Japan's relationship with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, "cooperation with South Korea was going to become even more important," a Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.
Park's fall from grace also could set back improvements in Japan-South Korea relations. Tokyo has provided 1 billion yen ($8.9 million at current rates) to a South Korean foundation that supports wartime "comfort women," created under a historic deal signed at the end of last year to "finally and irreversibly" put the issue to rest. The foundation has begun handing out cash to the women. But South Korea has yet to move a statue of a girl seen as representing comfort women from in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, an important issue for Tokyo.
Backlash against Park has even led to calls to scrap the comfort women deal. A delay in carrying out the deal could foster ill sentiments in Japan against South Korea.