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S. Korea, U.S., Japan seek security ties

China’s rise, North Korea’s threat bolster trilateral cooperation; historical animosity, economic interests with Beijing still in the way

North Korea’s continuing saber-rattling and China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific are reviving momentum for enhanced security cooperation among the U.S., South Korea and Japan.

Washington has long sought the three-way tie-up to lessen its security burden while maintaining its preeminence in the region, particularly at a time of fiscal austerity. But such efforts have been hamstrung by historical animosity between Seoul and Tokyo, and their deepening economic and diplomatic ties with Beijing.

“There is no question that the U.S. is promoting cooperation between Japan and South Korea to help counter China’s growing power in East Asia. The main reason the U.S. is now pivoting to Asia is because it fears China’s rise,” John J. Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, said in an email interview with The Korea Herald.

“Washington hopes to work with China’s neighbors to put together a balancing coalition that will contain China and prevent it from dominating Asia the way the U.S. dominates the Western Hemisphere,” he said.

With thorny issues of Japan’s wartime atrocities still unsettled, South Korea and Japan appear to be enhancing their bilateral military cooperation, which was lackluster under the preceding liberal governments in Seoul which prioritized reconciliation with Pyongyang.

Seoul and Tokyo are now seeking to ink the “General Security of Military Information Agreement and Acquisition,” which will be the first bilateral military deal since the end of Japan’s 36-year colonial rule here in 1945.
This file photo shows U.S. fighters taking off from the Nimitz-class USS George Washington for joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea in the East Sea. (AFP-Yonhap News)
This file photo shows U.S. fighters taking off from the Nimitz-class USS George Washington for joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea in the East Sea. (AFP-Yonhap News)

Japan is also reportedly considering dispatching its Aegis-equipped destroyer with a 1,000-kilometer operational coverage to the West Sea to keep closer tabs on Pyongyang.

Despite public sentiment against Japan’s military expansion, Seoul does not appear to oppose this move as the high-tech vessel will operate in international waters where China and Russia staged large-scale joint maritime drills in April for the first time since 2005.

Threats from N.K., China

Since the conservative, more security-conscious government of President Lee Myung-bak took office in 2008, Seoul and Tokyo have pushed to increase their military exchanges in the face of a common adversary, North Korea.

Former liberal Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun were passive in promoting such cooperation with Japan for the sake of their engagement policy with the North.

“An unpredictable and potentially volatile North Korea gives added urgency to finding ways to deepen cooperation among the three democracies,” Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asia Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“Under President Lee, triangular relations have expanded practical cooperation, moving well beyond the kind of periodic strategic dialogue that started in the 1990s.”

For the first time, Japan’s self-defense officers joined the South Korea-U.S. joint maritime exercise as observers in July 2010. It was organized to display the allies’ readiness against the North’s provocation following the communist state’s torpedoing of the corvette Cheonan in March.

In December of the same year, South Korean officers observed U.S.-Japan military drills. Seoul and Tokyo are now in talks over military pacts for information sharing and logistical support.

The three countries also plan to stage joint naval drills in waters south of Jeju Island later this month.

North Korea is an abiding source of security concerns for the Japanese.

After the North fired its Taepodong-1 missile with an estimated range of 2,000 kilometers in August 1998, Japan began recognizing the grave security challenge posed by Pyongyang.

Security fears spread further in Japanese society after vessels from the reclusive state invaded Japan’s territorial waters in 1999 and 2001. The issue of Japanese nationals abducted by the North further fanned anti-Pyongyang sentiment.

Most recently, Pyongyang’s botched rocket launch in April, which it claimed to be a satellite lift-off, agitated Tokyo, prompting it to consider stronger deterrence measures including the possible dispatch of its high-tech warship to the West Sea.

Uncertainty revolving around North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un is another factor that increases the need for closer security ties among the three nations, experts noted.

But for Japan and the U.S., greater threats come from China.

Tokyo and Beijing have been in a territorial dispute over a set of islands in the East China Sea, which are called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese. Based on its increased economic and military clout, China has moved to challenge the regional order and traditional norms, which the U.S. has fostered since the end of World War II.

“Basically the reason why the debate over the triangular cooperation has been reignited is they feel the need to deepen their cooperation to defend themselves while the U.S. is on its relative decline amid the rise of China,” said Nam Chang-hee, political science professor at Inha University.

“At present, China is not a hostile state, but in the future, there is a possibility of China becoming one in the future. So, the three are preparing for a cooperative system ‘to hedge against’ Beijing.”

Closer cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo is welcomed by Washington, which has been struggling to reset its defense priorities in the face of sweeping budget cuts to tackle a ballooning fiscal deficit.

Despite financial constraints, the U.S. plans to bolster its naval presence around the Pacific Rim amid China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea where major sea routes converge and massive untapped resources are believed to be buried.

Washington plans to increase the portion of its battleships stationed in the Asia-Pacific from the current 50 percent to 60 percent by 2020. The ships would include six aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships, and submarines.

“In some sense, the U.S. would be happy with the recent development involving threats from North Korea and China considering that its allies seek deeper cooperation and may purchase more U.S.-made weapons,” said Lee Dae-woo, senior researcher at the local think tank Sejong Institute.

Overcoming antagonism

The developments come as Seoul’s relations with Japan are still shaky due to Japan’s repeated sovereignty claim to Korea’s easternmost islets of Dokdo, its refusal to apologize to Korean women forced into sexual slavery during World War II and Korea’s claim that the former colonial ruler distorted historical facts in its school textbooks.

Most experts said that the two countries will not be able to resolve historical issues fully, underscoring the need to take a “pragmatic” approach that could serve their mutual security and economic interests.

“It will be impossible for history issues to be completely resolved but it is possible to overcome difficulties and allow close political interaction such as in Europe between France and Germany,” said Balbina Hwang, professor at Georgetown University.

“I believe the political leaders are ready for it and the majority of the population (silent majority) in both countries also want it, but unfortunately there are radical factions in both societies which inflame public opinion and have a disproportionate influence on political leaders.”

Victor Cha, Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the two should not let historical obstacles cripple bilateral strategic relations.

“You have to cooperate pragmatically. What policymakers have to do is to cooperate, despite that, on trade, security or climate change. They can’t allow themselves to get completely paralyzed by these historical things that happened a hundred years ago,” he said.

Prospect for triangular cooperation

As for Seoul, the trilateral security ties will remain on its foreign policy agenda due to uncertainty surrounding Kim Jong-un, the young, untested leader of North Korea, and a rising China, experts said.

“The need for security cooperation will continue at least for the next decade. But as Seoul’s degree of dependence on overseas trade is very high, the cooperation cannot go beyond the threshold that could hurt Seoul’s economic ties with China,” said Nam of Inha University.

Above all, what is the most crucial for the South is to have a sufficient military might to fend off threats from potential regional enemies.

“We cannot help but borrow military strength from friendly states including democratic Japan when we are lacking in our own military assets as it, for now, is in our best interests,” said Kim Sung-man who headed the Navy Operations Command from 2003-2004.

“But we need to have enough power as we never know whether Japan, all of a sudden, could attempt to take away the Dokdo islets.”

With Korea’s defense spending focusing mostly on Army and aerial military assets, the Navy has not been sufficiently equipped to fend off threats from the North and neighboring states effectively.

Except for vessels intended for littoral operations, the South Korean Navy has only 11 ships capable of longer-range overseas operations including two Aegis destroyers. Another Aegis warship has yet to be deployed.

By Song Sang-ho (
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