WASHINGTON -- Lingering World War II-era sensitivities and concerns about upsetting China are impeding the United States’ efforts to persuade South Korea and Japan to deepen missile defense cooperation against the North Korea threat.
The Defense Department greatly wants to strengthen the missile defense architecture in East Asia to offset the specter of North Korea’s growing ballistic missile capabilities. Pentagon officials in a number of recent trips to the region have promoted the benefits of deepening trilateral cooperation between the United States, South Korea, and Japan on antimissile issues.
Tokyo has been much more interested in collaboration than Seoul, which has said it prefers to develop an independent indigenous shield that would be designed around defending against shorter-range missiles.
Washington already has bilateral defense agreements in place with each ally that cover cooperation in some antimissile areas such as the hosting of U.S. radars and the use of U.S satellite data. It wants to see Japan and South Korea agree to exchange technical information on North Korean missile threats detected by their respective radars and sensors, according to Zachary Hosford, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security. That could open the door to integrated trilateral collaboration on the detection and coordination of countermeasure actions against the danger of a missile strike by Pyongyang.
Hosford said the United States has its work cut it out for it in prodding Seoul to accept that sort of collaboration.
“There is not a formal alliance mechanism in East Asia,” he said. “That’s complicated further by historical and cultural animosities. We’ve seen this pick up even more in the past couple of weeks with comments made by [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe.”
Abe suggested last month that the historical record on Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century is not yet settled, suggesting that he might soften an official apology made by Tokyo in 1995. Abe has also defended a visit by a member of his Cabinet to a shrine that honors Japanese killed in World War II even though the trip offended and infuriated many in the South.
There is a widespread view in South Korea that Japan has not done enough to demonstrate its regret for its colonial and wartime past and the recent missteps by the Abe administration have not helped that perception.
“This has very real effects on military cooperation,” Hosford said, noting that perceptions by the South of insensitivity by the Abe administration are pushing the two U.S. partners further apart.
South Korean President Park Geun-hye in an interview with the Washington Post last week said she was “very disappointed and frustrated” at the lack of progress between Seoul and Tokyo in improving their bilateral relationship. There is a “need for us to cooperate on North Korea. … But the Japanese have been opening up past wounds and have been letting them fester,” according to Park. “This arrests our ability to really build momentum, so I hope that Japan reflects upon itself.”
On the same day Park made those comments, Abe told Japanese lawmakers that his administration would not water down past official apologies for wartime aggression.
Only time will tell, though, the potential damage done to the already delicate South Korea-Japan relationship.
Seoul last year tabled an agreement that would authorize military intelligence sharing with Japan following accusations by opposition South Korean lawmakers that then-President Lee Myung-bak’s administration was rushing to finalize the accord without giving sufficient time for public debate. The bilateral pact would enable the exchange of information on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction including missile threats that might be detected by each nation’s radars.
Having the South Korea-Japan agreement in place would enable a faster exchange of early warning data in the event of a North Korean missile launch, giving the United States and the two Asian nations more chances to launch interceptors. “You have to share information as quickly as you can, from the moment a radar detects a launch from somewhere,” Hosford said.
“The information sharing agreement would drastically help the situation. As it currently stands the structure does not allow for information sharing to the degree or the quickness necessary to be able to conduct really effective networked missile defense operations,” he said.
“We would like to strengthen and deepen the trilateral cooperation between the three countries,” said an official with the Japanese Embassy in Washington, who requested anonymity on the grounds that he was not permitted to talk on-the-record. “We think [missile defense] is a very important field to strengthen our cooperation so … we hope the South Koreans will be forthcoming” on signing the bilateral intelligence accord.
Seoul has given no indication yet that it is ready to sign the agreement with Japan or to participate in a U.S.-led regional antimissile framework.
At a Wilson Center conference in early April, Park adviser Shim Yoon-joe responded to a question on whether Seoul would agree to deepen antimissile cooperation with Japan by saying: “We have developed our own Korean style missile defense system. We think it is more important to link [the] indigenous South Korean system to the U.S. system.”
Gilbert Rozman, a Northeast Asia studies professor at Princeton University, said at the same event he believes Seoul is being short-sighted by not making finalization of the military intelligence sharing accord with Tokyo a high priority. “The Japanese rivalry with South Korea it seems to me is one of the biggest challenges we face in trying to handle the problems of this region.”
South Korea also does not want to engage in multinational antimissile activities that would aggravate China, which is on guard for anything that would undermine its own long-range nuclear forces, according to Hosford.
Given this concern, the South has been careful to focus on acquiring capabilities that can counter the tactical missiles North Korea might launch but not the strategic weapons possessed by China. For example, the South Korean navy possesses warships equipped with Aegis antimissile systems but not the accompanying U.S.-manufactured Standard Missile 3 interceptors.
The Defense Ministry is seen to have rejected a recent request by its navy to consider purchasing the SM-3 missiles, leaving the South for the time-being with upgraded Patriot Advanced Capability 2 interceptors to fend off feared North Korean ballistic missile strikes. SM-3 interceptors can counter ballistic missiles at much higher altitudes than PAC-2 units.
“I happen to think South Korea has more room than it thinks to develop these capabilities without provoking China,” Hosford said.
At present, the Defense Department is focused on making South Korea and Japan more comfortable practicing how they would interact in an actual North Korea missile attack situation. The Pentagon is reportedly looking to hold a three-way antimissile exercise this year and to regularly hold such drills going forward.
"The United States has robust security alliances with South Korea and Japan that includes missile defense,” Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Monica Matoush said in a provided statement. “We continue to welcome their participation as we work together to strengthen ballistic missile defense in the Asia-Pacific."