New Leaders Forum

Can Japan, South Korea Connect?

Recent Features

New Leaders Forum

Can Japan, South Korea Connect?

Sovereignty and historical issues don’t have to destroy cooperation between Japan and South Korea.

On April 1, two Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (MSDF) escort destroyers,Kurama and Yamagiri, anchored at a South Korean navybase in Pyeongtaek as part of a training voyage. The move sent a strongsignal to North Korea that Japan and South Korea are stepping up their security cooperation. However, the fact that the naval exchange barely got a mention in the South Korean mediareflects just how carefully Seoul and Tokyo treat the question of “security cooperation.”

In some ways, it’shard to be optimistic about ties between Japan and South Korea. Last January, Seoul denied reports over talks with Tokyo on strengthening military cooperation. Moreover, talks between South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Noda Yoshihiko in Kyotoat the end of last year ended with very little progress on regional security, with discussion instead getting snarled in historical issues.

For decades, the volley of politicized disputes overhistorical and sovereignty issueshasundermined progress in Japan-South Korea relations.Talks between Seoul and Tokyooften end with a vague agreement to make relations more “forward-looking,” which in diplomatic speak is simply another way of saying “let’s talk about it later.”

Yet in reality, and despite ongoing tensions over sovereignty and historical issues, limited military cooperation and exchanges have been taking place between Japan and South Korea.Geographical proximity, affiliation to the U.S. alliance network, and overlapping interests on regional stability have inevitably drawn the two countries a little closer, a reality underscored by MSDF training voyages to South Korean ports, the mutual invitation of observers in bilateral exercises with the United States, and other small-scale exercises between Japanese and South Korean forces. In addition, on disaster relief efforts, cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo has proven to be quite successful, demonstrating plenty of potential for dealing with broader security issues.

It would have been naïve to expect a quantum leap in relations between Japan and South Korea to come from the recent meetings, and Japan and South Korea will need to work hard to find more constructive ways of handling their differences. Japan can’t simply expect the Korean public to forgetthe delicate issues that Seoul raises, while South Korea for its part needs to understand that a combative approach is counterproductive.

Regardless, the fact that the disputes between the two haven’t escalated is an encouraging sign. Of course, that both are close U.S. allies has certainly helped. And the two countries will need to be willing to address lingering disagreements if they are to have a hope of moving forward, especially on cooperating over regional security. But instabilityon the Korean Peninsulaor around Japan is in nether countries’ interests, and given the uncertainties concerning the future of North Korea under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, Seoul and Tokyo have no choice but to start fleshing out some of their proposed yet vague ideas on security cooperation.

Beijing and Pyongyang can for their part be expected to express concern over a partnership between Japan and South Korea. However, this should actually be an incentive for Seoul and Tokyo to work harder together, as China and North Korea will be only too willing to step into any gaps in the region to further their own strategic leverage, whether it is over missile defense, cyber warfare, or air and maritime security in the East China Sea.

The fact is that although historical and sovereignty issues are a problem obstructing confidence-building measures, they are not the reason the two haven’t been able to develop closer ties. The biggest problem has been Seoul and Tokyo’s failure to acknowledge each other’s expectations, a necessity if they are to find ways of working together on regional security. For Japan and South Korea, cooperation has to be the means, not simply the ends. By focusing more on boosting military inter-operability, increasing military-level dialogue and sharing intelligence, the two countries can gradually build confidence.

Ultimately, there’s a strong rationale for Japan and South Korea to build closer security ties, and doing so would help fill in the missing link in the U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance triangle. But it won’t happen unless both sides try to put themselves in the other’s shoes.

Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi is a security affairs analyst affiliated with the FM Bird Entertainment Agency Scholar Project, a Sergeant First Class in the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force Reserve Component, and a non-resident SPF Fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS. The views expressed in this article are entirely the author’s own.