A Seoul-Tokyo alliance is neededNorth Korea is now a nuclear missile power. This fact is deeply disconcerting but nonetheless true. South Korea, Japan, and the United States all refuse to accept this. Their denial is politically understandable — all are loathe to accept or normalize North Korean nuclear weapons — but it is highly unlikely that they can denuclearize North Korea without the use of force. North Korea is almost certainly not going to surrender its nuclear weapons; the concessions Pyongyang would require for denuclearization would be so outrageous that the allies would never agree. In short, we are going to have to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea.
This is already the reality, and it will sink in slowly. Months and years will pass with North Korea as a nuclear state, and eventually the countries around it will start to adjust. Even the United States will slowly adjust. In the late 1990s, Pakistan, which has a raging Islamic fundamentalist insurgency, acquired nuclear weapons. There was much dire talk about jihadists stealing a weapon and worsening tension with historical rival India. But in the end, nothing happened. The world adjusted to Pakistani nuclearization. My sense is that a similar outcome is likely in northeast Asia. North Korea will endure years of opprobrium and sanction. It will hang tough. Eventually others, including the United States, will learn to tolerate nuclear North Korea, however grudgingly.
This new nuclear regional environment is now the central reason for improved South Korean-Japanese cooperation. North Korea is the most dangerous state to ever possess nuclear weapons. Analysts now fear that Tokyo and Seoul will nuclearize in response. There is also anxiety that North Korea’s ability to strike the American homeland will reduce the American defense commitment to the region. Known as “de-coupling,” this argument suggests the Americans will not exchange San Francisco for Seoul.” North Korea could threaten to devastate a major American city in order to prevent the United States from fulfilling its alliance guarantees on the peninsula. If this is the case, then the regional democracies have all the more reason to work together.
Finally, Donald Trump’s erratic presidency adds layers of unanticipated uncertainty, suggesting again the value of South Korean-Japanese cooperation. Trump is the most unlikely president in American history. His rhetoric on North Korea is broadly rejected in East Asia, and there is much anxiety about his behavior and his impact on American reliability and credibility. European members of NATO have already expressed a need to work more closely given Trump’s unpredictability. Nor does Trump appear vested in East Asian security. His campaign focused on terror threats from the Middle East, and his voter base is far more concerned about ISIS than North Korea. After Trump’s visit to the region this week, he is unlikely to return here in this presidential term. Asian democracies need to start seriously thinking about cooperation among themselves, at least for the duration of the Trump presidency.
There are many forms this South Korean-Japanese cooperation might take. The most obvious area is missile defense. South Korea and Japan are similarly threatened by Northern missilization. Both have invested in missile defense. An arms race between missiles and missile defense is an increasingly likely strategic outcome in East Asia. Conventional land deterrence is relatively stable. But cheap air power — missiles, drones, and other unmanned aerial vehicles — is tempting for all parties and could be destabilizing. This will in turn encourage air defense spending to give South Korean and Japanese cities a roof of some kind. A measure-countermeasure spiral seems likely, and missile defense would be a good deal cheaper and more coordinated if the South Koreans and Japanese work together.
Cooperation in the air more generally is possible too. Cooperation on land is too sensitive given Korean anxieties over the colonial past, and naval cooperation is similarly handicapped by the conflict over Dokdo. But cooperation in the air, particularly in trilateral concert with the United States, has occurred in the past. Given that the strategic contest over the peninsula is moving into the air anyway, cooperation to contain North Korean missiles and drones is wise.
If direct bilateral cooperation is too difficult, then the United States might also play a role in brokering trilateral cooperation. It is unfortunate therefore that the current South Korea administration has rejected trilateralism. A formula where the United States brokers limited cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo is the most obvious way to overcome political hurdles in both countries to engagement.
Cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo is fraught with well-known problems. Nationalist ideologues are both sides make striking deals very difficult. Ironically, polling routinely suggests majorities in both countries want better relations. And elites in both countries know this is wise, especially now, in the Trump era. In my experience in East Asia, policy-makers and scholars have often told me in side conversations that they would like better relations but worry about speaking up too loudly. The nationalist NGOs, although small, play to powerful emotions. Pragmatic voices are sidelined or can be damned as traitors.
On the South Korean side, a rapprochement with Japan will take a certain moral or emotional courage. Japan did indeed do awful things in Korea, but that Japan was seventy-five years ago. A greater recognition that Japan today is a modern, human rights-respecting democracy would be a good step. So would a recognition that Japan is not re-arming or re-militarizing or otherwise plotting to re-invade Asia. Japan’s average age is 47; its defense spending is only 1 percent of GDP; and it is deeply interwoven with the U.S. military. It is simply inaccurate to suggest that Japan has designs on Korea today or could act on them.
These will be hard admissions to make. External analysts like me have argued for years that South Korea and Japan engage one another. But ultimately this is a choice South Koreans must make for themselves. South Korea has genuine issues of concern with Japan — most obviously the comfort women. But the nuclear threat raised by North Korea this year has brought the region to the brink of war. Similarly, the long-term rise of China overshadows everything, and democratic Japan is far more likely to treat South Korea well than authoritarian China. Cooperation is the interest of both countries — if only they can bring themselves to admit it.
*The author is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University.
Robert E. Kelly