Japan-South Korea Discord Seen Harming Efforts to Defend Against N. Korea

South Korean protesters burn an effigy symbolizing Japan during an August rally in Seoul to mark the 68th anniversary of the liberation from Tokyo's colonial rule. Increasingly strained relations between the two East Asian democracies are complicating U.S.-led efforts to enhance the region's preparedness for dealing with North Korea.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
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Rachel Oswald, Global Security Newswire
Dec. 2, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — In­creas­ingly frosty re­la­tions between South Korea and Ja­pan lately are im­ped­ing U.S.-led ef­forts to bol­ster re­gion­al pre­par­a­tions for re­spond­ing to a po­ten­tial fu­ture North Korean at­tack, cur­rent and former U.S. and Ja­pan­ese of­fi­cials say.

“We can’t af­ford for our al­lies to be on di­ver­gent paths,” said Dav­id Ash­er, a former seni­or ad­viser on East Asi­an af­fairs at the State De­part­ment.

The United States would like to see the Ja­pan­ese and South Korean armed forces deep­en their col­lab­or­a­tion against pos­sible threats from Py­ongy­ang, es­pe­cially those posed by fast-fly­ing mis­siles. However, sev­er­al ini­ti­at­ives in that area have been sty­mied by his­tor­ic — and newly mount­ing — dis­trust in Seoul about Tokyo’s mil­it­ary am­bi­tions.

South Korea has raised con­cerns over the Shinzo Abe ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plans to ex­pand Ja­pan’s defin­i­tion of “col­lect­ive self-de­fense” to in­clude com­ing to the aid of al­lies be­sides the United States. Seoul has yet to ap­prove a pro­posed bi­lat­er­al ac­cord that would au­thor­ize the ex­change of mil­it­ary in­tel­li­gence on such things as bal­list­ic mis­siles fired by North Korea.

While the United States has sep­ar­ate agree­ments in place with Ja­pan and South Korea that al­low for the dis­sem­in­a­tion of tech­nic­al in­form­a­tion about North Korean threats, there is no ac­cord in place that al­lows for the seam­less trans­fer between Seoul’s and Tokyo’s mil­it­ar­ies of sim­il­ar data.

“It’s es­sen­tial “¦ that we have a com­mon in­tel­li­gence and re­con­nais­sance op­er­at­ing pic­ture and op­er­at­ing strategy,” Ash­er said in a phone in­ter­view last week, re­fer­ring to Ja­pan, South Korea and the United States. “The in­ab­il­ity to share in­form­a­tion among our al­li­ances in­hib­its that and there­fore leads to in­creas­ing dys­func­tion­al­ity.”

Seoul had been ex­pec­ted to ap­prove the mil­it­ary in­tel­li­gence pact in sum­mer 2012, but ab­ruptly delayed its sign­ing after a num­ber of loc­al law­makers ob­jec­ted to what they saw as a rush by the former Lee My­ung-bak gov­ern­ment to ap­prove the ac­cord without al­low­ing enough time for pub­lic de­bate.

A meet­ing earli­er this month between the South Korean and Ja­pan­ese vice de­fense min­is­ters failed to pro­duce any an­nounce­ment on when the ac­cord might be fi­nal­ized.

Seoul is also un­com­fort­able with Tokyo in­creas­ing the num­ber of scen­ari­os in which it is will­ing to in­ter­vene mil­it­ar­ily abroad. However, Wash­ing­ton views it as only nat­ur­al for Ja­pan to take on a broad­er role in re­gion­al de­fense that is com­men­sur­ate with its fin­an­cial clout, ac­cord­ing to James Schoff, a former Pentagon of­fi­cial spe­cial­iz­ing in East Asia is­sues.

This would con­sti­tute a ma­jor change. Ja­pan’s cur­rent pa­ci­fist con­sti­tu­tion, ad­op­ted shortly after World War II, per­mits the Pa­cific power to use its soph­ist­ic­ated mil­it­ary only to re­pel at­tacks against Ja­pan­ese ter­rit­ory.

Ky­odo News re­por­ted last month that a South Korean For­eign Min­istry spokes­man stated that talks with Tokyo about its as­ser­tion of a right to col­lect­ive self-de­fense should take place “un­der the ba­sic prin­ciples of the pa­ci­fist con­sti­tu­tion and in a way that al­le­vi­ates the con­cerns that neigh­bor­ing coun­tries have for his­tor­ic­al reas­ons.”

Some of­fi­cials in South Korea are con­cerned that un­der the pro­posed re­vised de­fense doc­trine, Ja­pan­ese forces could uni­lat­er­ally de­ploy to the Korean Pen­in­sula, for in­stance, fol­low­ing a pos­sible sud­den col­lapse of the Kim Jong Un re­gime in North Korea, ac­cord­ing to a sep­ar­ate Ky­odo re­port from Novem­ber.

Such a scen­ario is dis­turb­ing to some in South Korea where the memory of liv­ing un­der Ja­pan­ese co­lo­ni­al rule has not faded. Seoul also hopes to re­uni­fy the two Koreas and is con­cerned this goal will be com­plic­ated if Ja­pan­ese troops de­ploy to the North.

Ji-Young Lee, an as­sist­ant pro­fess­or at Amer­ic­an Uni­versity’s School of In­ter­na­tion­al Ser­vice, last week said she be­lieved it would be more prudent for the Ja­pan­ese mil­it­ary to play a lo­gist­ic­al sup­port role in any al­lied plan for deal­ing with the chaos of a post-Kim North Korea, rather than de­ploy­ing any troops to the Korean Pen­in­sula.

“That’s why it is so im­port­ant to have pri­or con­sulta­tions” among Seoul, Tokyo and Wash­ing­ton on plans for ad­dress­ing pos­sible re­gime col­lapse, said Lee, who fo­cuses on East Asia se­cur­ity is­sues.

Asked for com­ment on the mat­ter of tri­lat­er­al dis­cus­sions, State De­part­ment spokes­man for East Asi­an and Pa­cific Af­fairs Jason Reb­holz said Wash­ing­ton and Tokyo in seni­or-level Oc­to­ber talks “af­firmed the im­port­ance of co­ordin­at­ing closely” with Seoul on com­mon de­fense mat­ters.

“I think the United States in private cer­tainly tries to con­vince South Korean coun­ter­parts that this is OK, be­cause this is about Ja­pan con­trib­ut­ing more to re­gion­al se­cur­ity,” said Schoff, who is now with the Carne­gie En­dow­ment for In­ter­na­tion­al Peace.

Many in South Korea think that Ja­pan has not gone far enough in apo­lo­giz­ing for its col­on­iz­a­tion of the Korean Pen­in­sula in the early 20th cen­tury or its ac­tions dur­ing World War II. This sen­ti­ment has only deepened over the last year as a res­ult of ac­tions by the Abe ad­min­is­tra­tion, such as vis­its by cab­in­et mem­bers to a shrine that hon­ors Ja­pan­ese killed in the war, in­clud­ing a num­ber of con­victed war crim­in­als.

“If Ger­many had con­tin­ued to say things that in­flic­ted pain, while act­ing as if all was well, would European in­teg­ra­tion have been pos­sible?” South Korean Pres­id­ent Park Geun-hye was re­por­ted by the New York Times to have said to U.S. De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel dur­ing a Septem­ber meet­ing. “I think the an­swer is no.”

Hagel had re­portedly hoped to use the meet­ing to prod the South Korean lead­er in­to ad­opt­ing a softer line to­ward the Abe gov­ern­ment, but was un­suc­cess­ful.

Com­ments by Ja­pan­ese politi­cians about the coun­try’s co­lo­ni­al  and World War II-era ac­tions “really fuels” fears among some South Koreans that Ja­pan might re­sume its 20th cen­tury mil­it­ar­ism “if [Ja­pan­ese lead­ers] say things that in­dic­ate that Ja­pan” is not truly re­morse­ful about the past, Lee said.

Abe “un­der­stands very clearly” that hav­ing a good re­la­tion­ship with South Korea is im­port­ant, par­tic­u­larly “be­cause of the North Korean is­sue,” said a Ja­pan­ese gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial, who lacked per­mis­sion to dis­cuss the sens­it­ive mat­ter and asked not to be iden­ti­fied.

In a Novem­ber in­ter­view with Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, the of­fi­cial ac­know­ledged that “be­cause of the dif­fi­culty in [bi­lat­er­al] re­la­tions, a lot of co­oper­a­tion and tech­nic­al is­sues have also been stalled.”

Sung-yoon Lee, an as­sist­ant pro­fess­or of Korean Stud­ies at Tufts Uni­versity’s Fletch­er School of Law and Dip­lomacy, said it is past time for Abe and Park to hold their first sum­mit and dis­cuss their gov­ern­ments’ re­spect­ive roles in a pos­sible post-Kim North Korea.

“I un­der­stand that polit­ic­ally it’s not feas­ible for the South Korean gov­ern­ment to ad­dress those is­sues in pub­lic,” said the Fletch­er schol­ar in a re­cent phone in­ter­view. “At the same time, I think the gov­ern­ment is be­ing my­op­ic in not ad­dress­ing these is­sues be­hind closed doors” in tri­lat­er­al talks with Ja­pan and the United States, he said.

The South Korean mil­it­ary is gen­er­ally more sup­port­ive of deep­en­ing co­oper­a­tion with Ja­pan than are South Korean politi­cians, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts.

“I think there is a bet­ter mil-to-mil work­ing re­la­tion­ship between [South Korea] and Ja­pan than real­ized by most people,” said Ash­er, who is now a non-res­id­ent seni­or fel­low with the Cen­ter for a New Amer­ic­an Se­cur­ity. “It’s at the high level where things are really troubled.”

Ad­ded Schoff last week: “South Korean de­fense lead­ers would love to get this [in­tel­li­gence-shar­ing pact] done, so they would have ac­cess in real-time to the X-band radar in­form­a­tion com­ing out of Ja­pan.”

The U.S. de­ploys an early-warn­ing radar at the Shariki mil­it­ary base in north­ern Ja­pan and is plan­ning on field­ing a second, long-range sensor with­in the year at the Kyo­gam­i­saki air base. The radars will be fo­cused on im­prov­ing the early de­tec­tion and mon­it­or­ing of po­ten­tial North Korean bal­list­ic-mis­sile launches.

Hav­ing im­me­di­ate ac­cess to X-band data about any pos­sible North Korean mis­siles head­ing to­ward South Korea could give Seoul a bit more time to ready a re­sponse to any at­tack, ac­cord­ing to Schoff.

Giv­en a per­cep­tion that the threat posed by North Korea is in­creas­ing, it “is very im­port­ant” to fi­nal­ize the bi­lat­er­al in­tel­li­gence ac­cord, the Ja­pan­ese of­fi­cial said.

This art­icle was pub­lished in Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, which is pro­duced in­de­pend­ently by Na­tion­al Journ­al Group un­der con­tract with the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive. NTI is a non­profit, non­par­tis­an group work­ing to re­duce glob­al threats from nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons.

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