[Viewpoint] 5 reasons for cooperation with Japan

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[Viewpoint] 5 reasons for cooperation with Japan

After considerable momentum in the wake of the March 2010 Cheonan sinking, the Japan-Korea security cooperation suddenly crashed on the rocks this summer. It now looks like bilateral agreements on security of information and logistics cooperation are being put on the shelf until at least after the December election in Korea.

This comes as a great disappointment to the Obama administration and most of us who have worked on Northeast Asia policy in previous administrations. The U.S.-South and U.S.-Japan alliances were created at the beginning of the cold war as separate and distinct arrangements in contrast to NATO. This was because then Japan’s leader Shigeru Yoshida feared entrapment in another war on the Asian continent and because then U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles feared that Syngman Rhee would use a multinational collective security arrangement to pull the U.S. into another Korean War.

By the 1990s, however, it was obvious that the barriers put up between the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-Korea alliances at the beginning of the cold war were a liability to U.S. foreign policy. In 1998 when former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry gathered a group of experts to plan what he should do as special envoy for North Korea, my friend Victor Cha and I both urged him to focus on trilateral coordination with Korea and Japan to strengthen our position. The Trilateral Coordination and Oversight Group (TCOG) was one of Perry’s important legacies. With North Korea’s aggressive and unpredictable provocations in recent years, trilateral cooperation has become even more important to deterrence and effective diplomacy.

The issue for most Joongang Ilbo readers is not what is in U.S. interests, but what is in Korea’s national interest. Everyone knows well the lamentable reasons for the current bilateral difficulties with Japan, but missing in the discussion is a realpolitik look at what would best enhance Korean security and influence. I would submit that moving ahead with diplomatic and security cooperation with Japan has at least five major advantages for Korea.

First, the Ministry of National Defense knows well that the gaps between Korea and Japan are a potential source of vulnerability for both sides in the event of instability or crises on the Korean Peninsula. This became vividly apparent as the U.S., Korea and Japan prepared to monitor and respond as necessary to the last missile launch by the North. The technical difficulties in data-sharing and communication between the South and Japanese forces on that occasion would have been enormous problems had North Korea actually launched missiles at both countries. The security of information agreement that was moving forward between Korea and Japan would have helped to remove those obstacles to the benefit of the defense of Korea. Now it is on hold.

Second, enhanced Korea-Japan security cooperation will give Seoul greater purchase on Japan’s own national security debate. Japanese politics are moving back to the right and there is an emerging consensus in Tokyo around lifting restrictions on collective defense, weapons exports and the use of space for military missions. These trends are sparking some concern in Korea, but a careful reading of the debate and the policies shows that Japanese leaders are taking these steps in order to have more effective coordination with the United States and other countries. The logistics cooperation agreement that is now in trouble would have made it easier for Korean officers to participate in exercises with Japan and would have positioned the Korean government to have a bigger say with the United States in Japan’s proper roles and missions going forward.

Third, trilateral coordination increases Korean influence on the United States. In the TCOG sessions I attended during the Bush administration, it was very clear that a joint request from both our major allies in Asia had far more impact than if it came from just Korea or just Japan. Going into the Oval Office and saying “our allies want this” is pretty effective.

Fourth, Korea has multiple options. Closer cooperation with Japan on security does not preclude work on a China-Korea-Japan FTA or other bilateral initiatives with China. In some respects closer cooperation with Japan enhances Chinese eagerness to improve relations and discourages Beijing from thinking Seoul can be intimidated away from security steps that are in Korean self-interest. It is important to remember that the discussions with Japan were over technical agreements to allow sharing of information and logistics - not binding treaties that placed any security obligations on either party.

Finally, Korean security cooperation with Japan demonstrates to North Korea that provocations will only increase the determination of neighboring states to work together to strengthen deterrence. The recent complications with Korea-Japan defense agreements will only give comfort to those in Pyongyang urging further nuclear and missile tests on Kim Jong-un.

I urge every Japanese politician I meet to focus their energies on improving relations with Korea. Most listen carefully. Only a minority criticize me, including the right-wing Japese comic “Gomanism,” which portrayed me as a snarling anti-Japanese and pro-Korean crusader. Some Korean bloggers have painted me as anti-Korean and pro-Japanese. The fact is that I am pro-U.S. And I have confidence that pro-Japan Japanese and pro-Korea Koreans will move forward together as they evaluate what is in their respective national interests in a region that is increasingly posing challenges to the peace, prosperity and democratic values we all want to protect for our people.

* The author is a senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Michael Green
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