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North Korea tests limits of South Korea, Japan cooperation

US envoy Stephen Bosworth arrives in Tokyo Thursday after visiting Seoul and Beijing. Implicit in his talks is a push for Japan and South Korea to cooperate for mutual defense against North Korea.

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Japan’s biggest selling newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, followed up that revelation with a report Wednesday that Japan and South Korea may sign an agreement in several months calling for military cooperation in peacetime despite “lingering disputes concerning Japan’s colonial rule.”

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The newspaper cited “growing uncertainty in East Asia,” notably “increased aggression by China and North Korea,” as behind the view that “enhanced bilateral defense ties are indispensable.”

US officials, in view of the sensitivities, are reluctant to comment on the chances of greater Japan-Korea military cooperation, much less an alliance.

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, however, has backed away from any notion of forcing the US to abandon bases on Okinawa despite the opposition of Okinawan residents and promises made by his Democratic Party of Japan before it came to power in August 2009. The current plan calls for the US to move a Marine air station out of a populated area to a more remote part of Okinawa while other elements transfer to Guam.

Mr. Kan took over leadership of his party – and the government – last June after his predecessor, Yukio Hatoyama, had to resign after moderating his view on the bases. Since then he has appeared increasingly receptive to the presence of US forces in view of what’s seen as the hardening of positions of North Korea as well as China, the North’s only ally and main source of food, fuel, and other vital supplies.

At the same time, Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who as a young student was jailed briefly for leading anti-Japan demonstrations, has encouraged close cooperation with Japan in the form of occasional military exercises, most recently off the South Korean port of Pusan.

“People in Korea feel the need to increase cooperation,” says Mingi Hyun, research fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy, though “there’s popular sentiment against it.”

Territorial hurdles

One tendentious sticking point is Korea’s claim to a cluster of rocky islets between the Korean peninsula and Japan in waters that Koreans know as the East Sea and the Japanese call the Sea of Japan. A Korean police garrison is permanently stationed on the larger of the small islets, called Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, which insists they are Japanese.

That dispute, while not likely to be resolved, has receded in importance as tensions rise over North Korea and China.

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