Linchpin and cornerstone
The author is the president of Korea Defense Diplomacy Association.
U.S. President Joe Biden recently called Korea the “linchpin for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia” and Japan the “cornerstone of peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific.” Korea and Japan, although they share bitter history and territorial issues, both value liberal democracy, market economics and human rights. Both countries accomplished economic growth in the postwar era and walked the same path over the past 70 years against the North Korean military threats based on their alliance with the United States.
And yet, Japan deleted the phrase about “shared values” with Korea in its Diplomatic Bluebook a few years ago. Tougher problems are also expected over the conflicts surrounding the wartime forced labor and sexual slavery issues. A new Korea-Japan relationship is desperately needed and the Biden administration also hopes for it.
A plan for Korea-Japan military cooperation can be a possible solution. After the Korean War, Japan served as the rear base of the U.S. and UN troops. The country plays a crucial role in the combined operational posture against the North’s military threats. U.S. Forces Korea is mainly Army troops, while U.S. Forces Japan are naval, air and marine troops. Due to the distinct makeup, they cannot be separated strategically. That is why both Donald Trump’s administration and the Biden administration treat Korea-Japan-U.S. security cooperation importantly.
The problem is that the military trust between Korea and Japan is starting to crack. The issue of the Korea-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) — a key to the trilateral security cooperation —and a recent dispute over a low-altitude flyby by a Japanese patrol aircraft and a South Korean warship’s alleged targeting of the aircraft were stated in the Korea’s Defense Whitepaper again. Military experts see that as a serious crisis.
Although ruling and opposition lawmakers on the National Defense Committee and foreign affairs and defense officials proposed during the annual Korea-Japan security strategy dialogue that the two countries sign an agreement to prevent maritime and air accidents, it was not realized.
Recently, as Chinese and Russian military aircraft are increasingly conducting drills over the East Sea, concerns grew about the possibility of an accidental clash. After China’s Coast Guard Law took effect on Feb. 1, the possibility of a maritime skirmish is also heightened.
In order to reduce tensions, the first step should be Korea-Japan defense ministerial talks. Military trust between the two countries is a pillar of the Korea-Japan relations. Their military relations have evolved as a friendly and cooperative ties based on their alliances with the United States. It won’t collapse easily, but a dam collapses from a small crack. Unless the two countries mend the rupture with their military trust, the crack can grow larger.
Military leaderships of Korea and Japan must candidly discuss mutual issues. A UN Security Council panel report on North Korea sanctions pointed out the long-range missile cooperation between North Korea and Iran. Also, there are other pending issues between Seoul and Tokyo, such as Covid-19 countermeasures and deployment to the Strait of Hormuz. Defense ministers of Korea and Japan must start phone talks to have strategic communication on the North Korea policy of the United States and security issues of Northeast Asia.
Recently, the South Korean military completed its ground test of a submarine launched ballistic missile (SLMB). After it completes the underwater test at the end of this year, South Korea will be a country armed with SLMBs. North Korea has hosted a Workers’ Party Congress and staged a military parade to show off its improved nuclear capabilities. Under such hostile circumstances, I am a bit relieved that the Korean military is reacting to North Korea’s threat properly.
However, as we are concerned about Japan’s light fleet carrier project, Japan is also concerned about our arms reinforcements. Korea and Japan’s military leaders must have talks to explain the backgrounds to each other and try to coordinate the plans within the framework of Korea-Japan-U.S. combined operational postures.
The true crisis arrives when we do not know it is a crisis. Japan’s annexation of Korea and the Korean War are the tragic examples. Before the Biden administration completes its alliance strategy and Korean Peninsula policy, Seoul and Tokyo must have communications. The Biden administration must be looking forward to Korea-Japan defense ministerial talks sooner or later.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.