The Koreas

South Korea Frets Over US-Japan Defense Guidelines

New defense guidelines for the U.S.-Japan alliance have some analysts in South Korea worried.

South Korea Frets Over US-Japan Defense Guidelines
Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Now that the United States and Japan have agreed to new defense guidelines for their alliance, there is a growing concern in South Korea that Japan might be able to exercise its military power within South Korea’s airspace and operations area in the future under the name of cooperation with the United States.

The new U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines state that Washington and Tokyo will cooperate under all circumstances, including the outbreak of war, and it has expanded their joint operation areas from the immediate Asia-Pacific area to the all over the world.

What has drawn the most attention in Seoul is the fact that the operation area of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces has expanded beyond the area near Japan to encompass the world at large. Many in South Korea are worried that this could mean Japan will be able to exercise military power within South Korea’s operations area as well as airspace without making an agreement with Seoul.

Japan currently provides rear support for the U.S. military, but according to revised guidelines, Japan will be able to exercise its military power in the name of helping the U.S. should an emergency happen within South Korean territory. When the guidelines were last updated in 1997, they included the same content — saying that Japan could help the United States in the case of a Korean contingency —  but Japan’s role was merely limited to assisting U.S. forces.

In fact, the United States and Japan have made it clear that the guidelines will require “full respect for sovereignty.” Some South Korean government officials are saying this provides clear evidence that Japan will seek an agreement as to when it should exercise its military power within South Korean territory. However, uncertainty remains as the guidelines do not provide an exact blueprint for U.S.-Japan communications with a third country.

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The bigger problem arises when considering a hypothetical conflict between South Korea and Japan. Yang Wook, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense & Security Forum, argued in an interview with South Korean daily Joongang Ilbo that, according to the new guidelines, the United States is supposed to help Japan in an armed confrontation between South Korea and Japan. He added that there is a possibility that the revised U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines conflict with the ROK-U.S. Mutual Defense Agreement.

Recognizing the concerns, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said on April 28 that the South Korean government will discuss the details of the revised guidelines with the United States and Japan. The South Korean government has been carrying the message to Japan that Tokyo should seek an agreement with Seoul when its military operations could affect South Korea’s national interests, not only within South Korea’s operation area but anywhere in the world.