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.

Ahn Young-joon/AP
US envoy on North Korea Stephen Bosworth talks to the media after meeting with South Korean officials at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Jan. 5. Bosworth arrives in Tokyo Thursday after visiting Seoul and Beijing.

US envoy Stephen Bosworth is carrying a message to Asian capitals this week that looks far beyond the obvious desire to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Implicit in his talks in Seoul, Beijing, and Tokyo is a push for Japan and South Korea to get over the legacy of 35 years of Japanese colonial rule and decades of animosity and suspicion – and cooperate for mutual defense against the North Korea threat and concerns about China as the rising regional power.

Japanese and Korean officials deny any consideration of an alliance, citing it as politically impossible. But Mr. Bosworth, who arrives in Tokyo from Beijing and Seoul on Thursday, faces mounting questions about cooperation engineered by the United States. Washington has longstanding but separate alliances with both countries, although US officials for years have stressed the need for “trilateral cooperation" that conjures the image of a three-sided alliance in case of hostilities.

Bosworth has been saying that North Korea to go beyond its stated desire to return to six-party talks and begin to live up to agreements reached in 2007 to forgo its nuclear weapons program in return for massive aid for its dilapidated economy. As a South Korean official put it Wednesday after Bosworth’s meetings in Seoul, “The South and the US shared an understanding that future six-party talks should not be talks for talks’ sake” – a view that Bosworth has frequently expressed.

While attempting to judge North Korea’s seriousness about wanting to return to the table and “end confrontation” with the South, as North Korea’s media stated in a New Year's editorial, Japanese officials are spreading the word about Japan-Korea cooperation.

How could Japan and South Korea cooperate?

Japan will outline terms of an agreement with South Korea for exchanging equipment, information, fuel, medicine, even food and water, if a war were to break out, according to official briefings given to the Japanese media. Japan’s defense minister, Toshimi Kitazawa, will be discussing the deal with Korea’s defense minister, Kim Kwan-jin, next week.

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.”

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.

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.

“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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