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Japan and South Korea: Towards a Closer Security Cooperation

Japan and South Korea: Towards a Closer Security Cooperation

North Korea’s provocative behavior has reached a new and unprecedented level after its last successful nuclear test on September 9th. In the last year, a new and dreadful level of activity has characterized Pyongyang’s provocations with two nuclear tests, an intercontinental ballistic test and countless submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) tests.

Since Kim Jong-un succeeded to its father in 2012, Pyongyang has consistently accelerated the acquisition of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities in order to fulfil the pursuit of the status of Nuclear Power Nation, as reaffirmed during last Korean Workers Party Congress in May.

Japan and South Korea: Towards a Closer Security Cooperation

While the U.S. and China strongly demand the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the end of the North Korean nuclear program and the resume of the Sixth Party Talks, there are evident signals that Pyongyang is determined to increase its military provocations as shown by the recent failed Musudan missile test on October 16th, recently reported by the United States Strategic Command.

Yet, the fast-paced level of technical sophistication in the acquisition, potential miniaturization and range-expansion of the nuclear warheads remains the biggest threats to South Korea and Japan, considered as primary targets. The U.N. Security Council remains adamant in condemning any additional transgressions of the nuclear NonProliferation Treaty, deploring all the grave violations of the previous resolutions against North Korea.

Despite the efforts of the international community to implement the economic sanctions against North Korea, Pyongyang remains determined to pursue the acquisition of nuclear weapons as main tool for regime survival, threatening the fragile balance in the Korean peninsula. The two Koreas remain technically at war, despite an armistice the 1953’s armistice, which ensured de facto the cessation of the hostilities.

From cordial mistrust to closer entente

Japan and South Korea are the most strategically valuable U.S. allies in the region, but also the most exposed to the threat of military retaliation from Pyongyang. While Obama Administration has emphasized its commitment in preventing Pyongyang’s full acquisition of military and nuclear capabilities, concerns over the limited results achieved by the strategic patience approach has surely affected Japan and South Korea’s perception of Washington’s recalibrating role in the region.

Earlier this year, President Park responded to Pyongyang’s escalating missile and nuclear threat with a new and more hawkish policy towards North Korea, characterized by abandoning the path of dialogue and negotiation while relying more and more on a robust deterrence and defense capabilities such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

Japan under Abe Administration has increasingly responded to the severe shifts in the regional and international scenario, embarking on a wide reform of its security posture that fostered a debate over the opportunity for marked amendments of Japan’s post-war Constitution.

Currently, Japan is expanding its engagement in promoting a new and more pragmatic role aside Washington through a proactive contribution to peace, while abiding by the commitment of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

On August 3rd, North Korea fired an intermediate-range Rodong missile that fell in the Sea of Japan, 250 km from the coast and within Japan’s Economic Exclusive Zone. Japan’s concern about the surrounding security environment and the threat posed by Pyongyang’s dreadful provocations has certainly affected the decision of Japan’s political elites to accommodate unresolved issues with South Korea in favor of a closer strategic engagement.

Japan and South Korea: Towards a Closer Security Cooperation

Japan and South Korea recognize the pivotal role of Washington as a military patron and strong supporter of a more dynamic strategic trilateral pact, able to expand the level of cooperation between Japan and South Korea. Yet, for long time their relations have been strained by a large number of tensions such as territorial disputes and the heavy legacy of the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army during the occupation of Korea.

For these reasons Seoul and Tokyo have never managed to establish a shared framework for bilateral military cooperation. Yet, North Korea’s growing military capabilities and its slow but unrelenting desire to acquire a more threatening nuclear weapon arsenal have persuaded Japan and South Korea to increase the level of pressure on Pyongyang.

Japan and South Korea have recognized the importance of establishing a new framework for regional cooperation and dialogue as stressed by South Korean Ministry of Defense.

Recently, Seoul has announced its willingness to establish with Tokyo a new framework for intelligence-sharing cooperation while increasing the exchange of data on North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities as part of the trilateral pact signed in 2014.

This could be the first step in resuming the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) proposed in 2012 through the mediation of Washington and later cancelled.

A deal following the model of the GSOMIA, not only would represent a critical breakthrough in the relations between Japan and South Korea, but it would also provide a critical tool to expand the exchange of intelligence about Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities, cyber-security and other unconventional threats.

Japan and South Korea have made important progress in solving the issue of the comfort women, ultimate legacy of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule. Seoul traditionally reluctant to engage with Japan has moved to a more pragmatic position as highlighted by South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-Koo on October 14.

Moreover, once the deal is approved, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces could be deployed in supporting activities of the U.S. troops as in patrolling operations, but also assisting Washington in the event of an armed conflict, fulfilling the right of the collective Self-Defense.

A change in the regional scenario

The perception of Pyongyang’s nuclear threat has been one of the most critical elements of alteration of the strategic balance in the region. In the last few months, North Korea missile tests have accelerated the decision of Seoul to deploy the THAAD system creating a diplomatic fracture in the renewed entente with China.

Japan has also announced the upgrading of its missile defense capabilities in the aftermath of Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test and following the example of South Korea, it might decide to acquire a THAAD or Aegis Ashore system to boost its deterrence capabilities.

Indeed, fostering the creation of a solid trilateral security cooperation would represent an important asset for Washington’s regional strategic agenda, but also a critical starting point for the expansion of a proactive security engagement across the Asia-Pacific region at the expenses of Beijing.

While China agrees on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the emergence of a strong trilateral security cooperation pact would seriously compromise Beijing’s influence and strategic interest not only in the Korean peninsula but also in the whole region, alimenting a new phase of harsh confrontation with Washington and its allies.

For Japan, the growing perception of isolation and vulnerability vis-à-vis the North Korea’s threat, still characterized by a vibrant anti-Japanese sentiment and the fast-paced China’s military modernization, has represented a critical element for the success of the ambitious Abe Administration’s security agenda.

While a part of the society still opposes to a marked departure from Japan’s reluctant realism, the renewed military engagement pursued by Tokyo could be seen as one pillar of an integrated strategy of cooperation with Washington and Seoul, dramatically concerned about the evolution of the security scenario in the Korean peninsula.

Of course much depends on the willingness of the future administration to resume and expand the strategic commitments in the region that have characterized Obama Administration’s agenda.

Both Japan and South Korea political elites remain wary over the possibility of abandonment in lieu of the presidential candidate Donald Trump’s grand strategy, calling for a disengagement of the U.S. military presence from the region.

In Seoul, policymakers of the ruling Saenuri party have openly discussed not only the development of an indigenous nuclear weapon program, but also of the possibility of pre-emptive strikes on North Korean facilities, jeopardizing Obama Administration’s vision for a denuclearized Korean peninsula.

Boosting deterrence has become one of the most critical issues within South Korean government and plans for developing a nuclear submarine as the ultimate tool to deter Pyongyang’s nuclear threat, have been taken into serious consideration.

Facing nuclear annihilation as often stressed by North Korean bellicose rhetoric, South Korean political elites and defense officials have shown interest in designing plans for the elimination of the North Korean leadership with surgical strikes as ultimate solution to the dreadful nuclear threat represented by Pyongyang.

An unprecedented strategic cooperation between Japan and South Korea is the direct consequence of a phase of recalibration of Washington’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific region as the end of Obama Administration approaches.

In dealing with Pyongyang, very limited results have been obtained in persuading its recalcitrant leadership to comply with norms and regulations of the international community, leaving Japan and South Korea in a difficult position to respond effectively to the emerging nuclear crisis fuelled by North Korea’s threatening behavior.

A strong security cooperation could be a critical tool for both countries to address the emerging strategic issues on the regional scenario. Yet its success might depend also on next administration’s decision to follow the path marked by President Obama towards the fulfillment of Washington’s Pacific Century, rather than embracing a new strategic orientation.




Daniele Ermito

Daniele Ermito holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Bologna and a MSc in Asian Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His areas of research include Northeast Asia security, the DPRK and Chinese foreign policy. He also writes for Global Risk Insights. You can follow him on Twitter @DanielRmito