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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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Bosworth, in Beijing, called on China to rein in North Korea, but China has not supported South Korea’s accusations against North Korea for the shelling of an island in the Yellow Sea on Nov. 23 in which two South Korean marines and two civilians were killed. Nor did China support the results of a South Korean investigation, with international participation, that held North Korea responsible for the sinking in March of a South Korean Navy corvette in the Yellow Sea with a loss of 46 sailors.

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“Relations with China have many people worried,” says Mr. Hyun. In fact, he says, “longer term, Koreans are more worried by China than by North Korea.”

Hideake Kase, historian and author of numerous books and articles on Japanese military issues, sees the US role as pivotal for Korean-Japanese cooperation.

“As long as the US is involved," Mr. Kase says, "it’s Japan and the US and Korea and the US.” Without the US at the center, he says, “I don’t foresee an alliance because of Korean sentiment.”

Korean authorities, says Kase, have not responded positively to Japanese suggestions for a plan for dispatching Japanese forces to Korea simply to protect Japanese citizens and move them back to Japan in case a war breaks out.

Kase also cites fears about the fate of North Korea’s nuclear program if South Korean forces reunited the Korean Peninsula. He believes South Korea, far from doing away with the North’s program, would want to keep it going – under South Korean control.

“That’s worrisome,” says Kase. “I don’t think we can stand for a Korean Peninsula with nuclear weapons.”

In the meantime, says Sam Jameson, who writes and lectures on Japanese defense issues, Japan is still hobbled by Article 9 of its post-war Constitution, which bars Japan from sending forces to war.

“The core of the Japanese Constitution is, ‘We don’t want to get involved,’” says Mr. Jameson. Prime Minister Kan "is sympathetic to the US bases," he says, but doubts if Japan is ready yet to go beyond talk about peacetime exercises.

As for the proposal for sharing supplies, services, and information, “That’s an administrative thing,” says Jameson. “That’s still 99 steps away from a defense treaty.”

Kenji Yoshimura, in an analysis in Yomiuri Shimbun, noted that Japanese naval officers had observed US-Korea exercises in July for the first time, but predicted that a Japan-Korea declaration would “fall short of stipulating what should be done in the event of a contingency on or around the Korean peninsula.”

The Foreign Ministry, he noted, had carefully denied a report in a Korean newspaper that purported to quote Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara as saying in an interview that Japan wanted “an alliance in the security field” with South Korea.

The Foreign Ministry “acknowledged it had mentioned the importance of enhanced security ties,” said Mr. Yoshimura, but it said Mr. Maehara “never referred to an alliance.”

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