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T. Cho: Address to International Leadership Conference 2019

Address to International Leadership Conference 2019, Seoul, Korea, May 15-17, 2019


Necessity of and Obstacles to Security Cooperation between Korea, Japan, and the U.S.

Security cooperation between Korea, Japan and the U.S. is nothing unusual by any measure. The reasons are as follows:

First, a security interest is shared by the three, with the U.S. as the pivot of the existing U.S.-ROK (Republic of Korea) alliance and U.S.-Japan alliance despite the lack of a legal or institutional mechanism for security cooperation between Korea and Japan.

Second, Korea and Japan are linked in terms of security more closely than the two countries feel thanks to the United Nations Command-Rear, which has seven UN-flagged bases in Japan, to cope with any contingencies on the Korean peninsula.

Third, there is a growing need for security cooperation between Korea, Japan and the U.S. in the future. North Korea’s surging nuclear missile capability poses a common threat to Korea and Japan, and this threat is bound to heighten barring any solutions to North Korea’s nuclear issue.

Last, smooth security cooperation between Korea, Japan and the U.S. requires a reasonable level of security cooperation between Japan and Korea. A case in point is that sharing of military intelligence between Korea, Japan and the U.S. for their security cooperation would be anything but smooth except for the Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Korea and the Government of Japan on the Protection of Classified Military Information (GSOMIA) that was signed in 2016.

There are, of course, significant hurdles to security cooperation between the three countries:

Korea, Japan and the U.S.: Strengthening an Alliance for Peace

First, the greatest of all hurdles is the worsening relationship between Korea and Japan. With the relationship reaching a serious stage owing to a variety of factors, the South Korean government’s two-track approach of bifurcating pending bilateral issues into two, namely, past history and cooperation in economy and security, has not been working properly. The worsening Japan-Korea relationship will have a negative impact on cooperation between the three countries and cooperation between Korea and Japan.

Second, neither Korea nor Japan, seem to be as passionate about security cooperation between themselves, and between Korea, Japan and the U.S. as they used to be for different reasons. The South Korean government’s initiatives focusing on the past, including Japan’s colonial rule, are spawning negative public opinion on the issue of the bilateral and the trilateral security cooperation. The Japanese government, while assuming a greater role in the security area in a bid to become a normal nation, is showing less interest in bilateral security cooperation with Korea than it did before. Its position has not budged despite the intensifying nuclear threat from North Korea.

Third, there is a difference of perspectives between Japan and Korea on the regional security threat, the rise of China. As far as Korea is concerned, communication and cooperation with China is not an option but a necessity in view of peace and the future of the Korean peninsula. On the part of Japan, it seems to regard China as the greatest threat to regional security, as seen in the disputes over the Senkaku Islands. The perspectives of Korea and Japan on China, it appears, have not changed in spite of the recent détente between Japan and China.

Last, the Trump administration, unlike its predecessors, does not seem to be bent on turning the souring relationship between Korea and Japan around. Korea, Japan and the U.S. should take an objective and proactive approach to the issue of the trilateral security cooperation. The security environment is impossible to predict. Nobody 30 years ago could expect what the situation would be like today and how the three countries should be prepared.

Therefore, for starters, it is sensible for the three to consider as many options as possible for conducting their respective foreign and security policy. Naturally, it would be desirable for the three nations to maintain the existing foundation for security cooperation, seeking dialogue and exchange between the authorities concerned.

Second, the consultation mechanism between the three should be restored and revitalized. Summit talks, foreign ministers’ meetings, defense ministers’ meetings between the three nations should be conducted and the dialogues that have halted between the national security advisors of the respective nations should be revived. The difficulties in the Japan-Korea relationship should not be cited as an excuse for not using the dialogue mechanism.

Third, the U.S. administration’s active role is in order. Security cooperation between the three nations has always been made possible thanks to the U.S.’s active mediation. The U.S.’s role is important as ever. The three may find it useful to do a trilateral brainstorming. It might be a good idea to hold track 1.5 meetings of eminent persons attended by government officials and non-state actors.



To go to the May 2019 ILC Schedule page, click here.