Japan, South Korea confronting shared threat together

Japan, South Korea confronting shared threat together

Felix Kim

Japan and South Korea, countries with animosities dating back to World War II, have been steadily building a stronger defense relationship in the face of shared threats from North Korea.

“My personal opinion is that it’s very important,” Rand Corp.’s Jeffery Hornung said of the growing defense relationship. “It’s critical to the United States. It’s critical to the security of both Japan and South Korea as well.”

Despite some lingering ill feelings stemming from Japan’s occupation of Korea before the end of World War II, both countries today face a common threat from North Korea’s short- and medium-range missiles, Hornung said. Their combined capabilities could be advantageous if a military response is required. (Pictured: Naval vessels from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. participate in a trilateral exercise.)

“If hostilities break out on the Korean Peninsula, there’s no way that Seoul can face them alone,” he said. “Not only would the United States be vital for ROK [Republic of Korea] to win in any hostility, but when you start to consider Japanese capabilities — logistics, rear area support, noncombatant evacuation operation — when you consider all these other things, Japan needs to be involved.”

Recent history indicates that Japan, South Korea and the U.S. have recognized the need for trilateral cooperation. Tokyo and Seoul signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in November 2016, which enables them to directly share intelligence such as satellite surveillance of North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons, Reuters reported. The deal was encouraged by the United States, which prior to the agreement acted as an intermediary between the countries to share military intelligence.

By the end of 2017, Japan and South Korea had participated in six joint defense exercises, along with the U.S., aimed at deterring and defending against the North Korean missile threat. The first exercise was held in June 2016 near Hawaii and involved ships from the three countries equipped with the Aegis defense system, The Japan Times newspaper reported. Subsequent exercises involved missile-detection drills and intelligence sharing, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported. The three countries participated in an anti-submarine warfare exercise in April 2017 near South Korea’s Jeju Island, and subsequent missile-detection and tracking exercises were held in October and December 2017.

Discussions about the joint exercises and other defense topics of concern to Seoul, Tokyo and Washington are discussed each year at the annual Defense Trilateral Talks (DTT), which involve senior defense officials. The 10th DTT was held in Washington on March 10, 2018, and focused mainly on the North Korean threat, according to the joint statement issued by the three countries.

“The three representatives recognized that the United States, the ROK and Japan face common security challenges in the region,” the statement said, “and reaffirmed their commitment to enhancing security cooperation and contributing to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Pyongyang, meanwhile, called for the GSOMIA to be scrapped. Its government mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, dubbed it, “an extremely dangerous and treacherous war agreement” in a May 2018 column.

Despite North Korea’s rhetoric, the partner nations have no plans to end the trilateral defense cooperation. The countries actively participated in what was dubbed the “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions that was widely credited with helping to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table.

“What does put pressure on is having a unity of efforts between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington,” Hornung said, “where all three capitals want to see a resolution of this issue.”

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.