North Korea: Why is Seoul and Tokyo Cooperation Necessary?

Author: Ryo Sahashi, Kanagawa University

From territorial disputes to non-traditional security concerns, 2010 will be remembered as the pivotal year for East Asian security.

The sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeongdo reminded us of the deeply-rooted risks lying in the Peninsula. But, additionally, it has created momentum for bilateral and trilateral cooperation between South Korea, Japan and the US.

In July 2010, officers from the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) observed American-South Korean military exercises, and last December South Korean military officers observed Japan-US exercises. Foreign ministers from the three countries also gathered in Washington DC last December, demonstrating a common stance against North Korean challenges. And in January, South Korean and Japanese defence ministers confirmed their willingness to upgrade security cooperation, and a prime ministerial address on the first day of Diet also expressed interests in reinforcing trilateral cooperation. In late January, the Commander of United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) also showed his interests in future trilateral joint military exercises.

Is this the genesis of a new security architecture in Northeast Asia, beyond the hub-and-spokes system since the Cold War? What functions could such enhanced partnerships provide? Some argue that it would drive Beijing into further support for Pyongyang — demarcating the sub-region into two camps. Is this argument really persuasive? Where is the right balance between alliance coordination and handling North Korea in collaboration with China?

Over the last two decades, the US, Japan and South Korea have clearly shared concerns over security threats from North Korea but failed to keep effective trilateral mechanisms. After the 1994 Agreed Framework succeeded in cooling down the first North Korean nuclear crisis, the three nations began ad hoc high-level meetings to discuss collaboration on the North Korea issue. The trilateral meetings initially encountered difficulties over conflicting national priorities and policies towards North Korea, but the Taepodong missile launch and the Perry Process successfully resulted in the creation of the Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group. But TCOG, officially established in 1999, ceased to function by the beginning of the Bush administration and has not coordinated any effective trilateral action.

During the Six Party Talks multilateral negotiations undermined trilateral relations between the US, Japan and the ROK. Today many argue that the effort for strengthening Seoul-Tokyo bilateral ties, and trilateral frameworks with the US, has at least four rationales.

Firstly, weak unity among the status quo powers has led to insufficient deterrence against the North. The Yeongpyeongdo shelling is evidence of this failure, and whilst US-ROK and US-Japan joint exercises contributed symbolically to deterrence, more development is needed.

Secondly, the necessity for policy coordination lies in preparing for scenarios of full-scale North Korean aggressions and domestic turmoil. Hitoshi Tanaka, former Japanese Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, proposes that trilateral cooperation should ‘include the formulation of full-fledged contingency planning for the defence of South Korea in the advent of North Korean aggression.’ He also points out ‘non-military aspects such as coping with refugee flows.’

Thirdly, the three countries should establish reliable intelligence mechanisms. During North Korea’s 5 July 2006 missile launch Seoul’s response was behind those of Tokyo’s or Washington’s — revealing the fractures in trilateral coordination and possibly creating issues of trust and reliance. Similar problems are possible if the US and/or South Korea chooses not to share information with Japan immediately after incidents with North Korea.

Fourthly, the current momentum makes this time special. The events in 2010 shocked people in Japan and the ROK, alerting them to the region’s instability. There appears to be renewed enthusiasm on behalf of the Lee Myung-bak and Naoto Kan governments for future cooperation and symbolic unity; and Mr Kan will also visit the US in June, with new directions for the alliance’s strategic objectives on the agenda.

This time, bilateral security partnership between Seoul and Tokyo could be enhanced by starting from low-key items such as the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) which will facilitate security cooperation. Intelligence sharing mechanisms also have some potential. Beyond such starters, regular and comprehensive dialogues need to be established between the ROK and Japan. Japan and the US could also discuss additional measures to the Law Concerning Measures to Ensure the Peace and Security of Japan in Situations in Areas Surrounding Japan (SIASJ).

Many do point to historically-rooted obstacles, as the Japanese government’s efforts on historical reconciliation have not been well-regarded by the Korean people, contributing to mental barriers against collaboration with the JSDF.

However, the ongoing situation is urgent, as fractures in bilateral cooperation will only create conditions more susceptible to manipulation by Pyongyang. Despite the obstructions, the current security architecture must be reinforced, and the ROK and Japan need to demonstrate to the US their conviction to cooperative action.

The effects cooperative action would have on China’s foreign policy, and their support for Pyongyang, should also be considered, as trilateral solidarity would be seen by China as an enhancement of the US alliance, preserving US influence in the region. Therefore, any collaboration with China is significant.

Of course, pushing Beijing into a corner is not a good idea. To avoid such results, trilateral cooperation must be designed solely for North Korean challenges — not for challenging the rise of China. The promotion of human rights and democracy cannot be a trilateral agenda. As Scott Snyder, Asia Foundation, points out, partnership among the three countries ‘should not preclude or inhibit Chinese cooperation.’

It is too pessimistic to worry that upgrading alliance coordination between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington would end up enhancing the Beijing-Pyongyang tie. After all, for China, enhancing the relationship with Pyongyang, symbolically and substantially, lacks profit, and Beijing is concerned over Pyongyang’s brinksmanship and nuclear agenda. And recently, Michael Green, a senior director at the National Security Council under the Bush administration, told that after President Hu’s visit to the US the two countries started to pressure Seoul into reengaging Pyongyang.

Here, diplomacy’s soft power is an essential tool. At the same time, the momentum for stronger alliance coordination must be leveraged. Such momentum has been lacking for a long time.

Ryo Sahashi is Associate Professor of International Politics at the Faculty of Law at Kanagawa University, an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Japan Center for International Exchange.

This article was originally published here by the Jeju Peace Institute under the title ‘Momentum for Alliance Coordinations is as Important as Negotiations: Why is Seoul and Tokyo Cooperation Necessary?