Tripartite security cooperation is a must

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Tripartite security cooperation is a must

Kim Jung-ha

The author is the political news director at the JoongAng Ilbo.

Russia, struggling in Ukraine these days, is threatening to use nuclear weapons. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is closely monitoring the movements of Russian nuclear forces because if President Vladimir Putin actually pushes the nuclear button, the most horrific crisis in human history could happen. But Ukraine is not the only country under a nuclear threat. Last month, North Korea legalized the conditions of its nuclear use. Simply put, the country concluded that it can use nuclear weapons even without a nuclear attack from an enemy as soon as it is convinced of an imminent attack. Furthermore, it also legislated the rights to use nukes to stop a prolonged war and seize control of the war. In other words, North Korea declared that it will preemptively use nuclear missiles, not as a means of a final counterattack.

The latest developments are serious enough to baffle the pro-North forces in South Korea who have long supported the North by saying that its nuclear weapons are for self-defense to counter U.S. threats. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who publicly promised in 2016 that he would never use nukes preemptively, reversed his words. He finally showed his true intentions.

“We will never abandon nuclear weapons or denuclearize the country. There will be no negotiation for denuclearization and nothing can be exchanged in return during any negotiation and process for this,” Kim said in a recent speech before the Supreme People’s Assembly. It became clear that the North Korean regime had no intention to give up nuclear weapons from the beginning and it just bought time by engaging in dialogue to advance its nuclear programs.

If North Korea uses nuclear weapons, South Korea is the first target and Japan the second. No matter how reckless Kim would be, he knows well that he will die the moment he launches a nuclear missile towards Washington. What can South Korea do now that it faces a substantial nuclear threat from North Korea? Ultimately, independently arming itself with nuclear weapons will be the resolution. But to this end, there are too many challenges to address. In realistic terms, the most effective solution is reinforcing military cooperation among South Korea, the U.S. and Japan to lower the possibility of North Korea making provocations. That will also serve as pressure on China, the longtime patron of the North.

But some still raise angry voices when it comes to Japan. Democratic Party (DP) Chairman Lee Jae-myung recently condemned joint South Korea-U.S.-Japan military exercise in the East Sea. “If we draw Japan into a joint drill, it can be interpreted as our acceptance of the Japan Self-Defense Forces as an official military of Japan,” Lee said. “It is an extremely pro-Japanese move. It is also extremely pro-Japanese national defense following the [Yoon Suk-yeol] administration’s humiliating diplomacy toward Japan.” Is Lee saying this is a pro-Japan defense?

After North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile on July 4, 2017, President Moon Jae-in met with U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe three days later at the G20 Summit in Frankfurt, Germany. At that time, the three leaders agreed to strengthen tripartite security cooperation to effectively counter the North’s provocations. That was an upgrade of trilateral cooperation from the arrangement made by Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye.

Three months later, four Aegis-class destroyers from the three countries conducted more exercises in the East Sea. During the Moon administration, the three countries conducted several more joint drills without public announcements. Actually, the latest trilateral military drill in the East Sea was agreed in October 2021 by the defense ministers of the three countries when the DP was in power. According to Chairman Lee’s logic, the Moon administration had promoted an extremely pro-Japanese national defense policy.

Going further back, the Roh Moo-hyun administration invited a warship of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces to a friendship event in the port of Incheon with the Korean navy in September 2007.
Former president Moon Jae-in, U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gesture before a summit on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 6, 2017. In the meeting, they agreed to strengthen trilateral cooperation to cope with mounting nuclear threats from North Korea. [KIM SEONG-RYONG]

Lee’s argument that the joint drill will be a pretext to Japan’s invasion of the Korean Peninsula originates with a serious ignorance of international affairs. It is like Ukraine rejecting support from Germany just because of World War II. Today, what threatens South Korea’s national security is North Korea’s nuclear missiles, not the Japan Self-Defense Forces.
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