SEOUL — The government of President Lee Myung Bak, struggling to extricate itself from the political debacle it created by attempting to enhance military cooperation with Japan, fired a top national security aide Thursday.
The aide, Kim Tae Hyo, widely considered a key architect of Lee’s foreign policy, is the most prominent casualty so far of the fiasco that Lee’s government unleashed when it quietly negotiated and approved a pact on sharing confidential military data on North Korea with Japan, Korea’s former colonial master, telling the public and Parliament about the deal only last Thursday, the day before it was supposed to be signed.
Lee’s government had meant the deal as a limited step toward increasing military ties with Japan in line with the United States’ desire to bring the two Asian countries closer under a trilateral alliance designed to cope more efficiently with North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats, as well as China’s clout.
It quickly became apparent, however, that the government had underestimated South Koreans’ misgivings about cooperating militarily with Japan, a former colonial aggressor. Lee’s political opponents quickly seized on that disquiet to launch an election-year offensive, accusing Lee of kowtowing to Washington and, with various civic groups, likening the conservative governing camp to the past Korean ‘‘traitors’’ who secretly cooperated with Japan’s annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910.
The military pact was not signed, and its fate is now mired in South Korea’s fractious election-year politics. The government said it would push for the signing, but the opposition has vowed to resist it and even some governing-party members voiced skepticism.
The new crisis is one that Lee and his New Frontier Party can hardly afford. A lame duck, with just 10 months left in his single five-year term, he was already grappling with political pressure resulting from a criminal investigation of his elder brother, a retired six-term national legislator, on allegations of corruption. His declining political leverage was dramatically demonstrated Monday, when he gave a speech before the National Assembly during which no lawmakers interrupted him with the customary applause. Many opposition legislators refused to stand when he entered and exited the chamber.
Kim, one of Lee’s most trusted policy advisers on North Korea and Seoul’s relations with Washington, left after internal talks at the Blue House, the president’s official residence.
A professor of political science at Sungkyunkwan University, Kim, 45, followed Lee into the Blue House after his election in 2007 and helped shape a foreign policy that emphasized the alliance with the United States and took a hard line on the North. Aid was cut off, and the South demanded that the North renounce its nuclear weapons program.
As inter-Korean relations deteriorated — dramatically demonstrated by the North’s artillery bombardment of a South Korean border island in 2010 — the political opposition accused Lee of mishandling North Korea. But Kim, dubbed ‘‘South Korea’s neocon’’ by his critics, had survived reshuffles of top presidential aides, and Seoul’s tough stance on North Korea continued.
Prime Minister Kim Hwang Sik apologized for not disclosing the negotiations. The opposition demanded that the president apologize, too, and fire those responsible for the secret talks. Lee’s office began an internal inquiry this week.