The military alliance with South Korea is the strongest defense partnership the U.S. has, according to a former top U.S. commander in the region, but the U.S., South Korea and Japan must improve “trilateral cooperation” to prepare more effectively for North Korean threats.
“Any conflict on the Korean Peninsula is going to be regional and probably even global,” said Walter Lawrence “Skip” Sharp, a retired Army four-star general who served as commander of United Nations Command, ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea.
The tangled history between Japan and South Korea has complicated Washington’s attempts to coordinate security policy with its two key East Asian allies and present a united front to North Korea. Pyongyang demonstrated its threat to the region again Tuesday by testing a missile that flew in part over Japanese airspace.
“It is critical for [South Korea], the United States and Japan to work together in areas of missile defense and intelligence,” Gen. Sharp told “The Washington Brief,” a virtual event series hosted by The Washington Times Foundation.
Japan is increasing its defense spending as Pyongyang provocations mount and as friction with South Korea shows signs of easing after years of intense bickering and a near breakdown in bilateral ties.
South Korea, U.S. and Japanese warships held their first trilateral anti-submarine drills in five years last month during a wave of North Korean missile tests, which were in apparent response to other joint military exercises by South Korean and U.S. forces.
“I am very encouraged … [that] this trilateral cooperation has started and is continuing,” Gen. Sharp said.
He said the three-way defensive exercises show that Seoul, Washington and Tokyo “are working together to be able to deter North Korean submarine attacks or provocations and clearly prepared to respond if those happen.”
U.S.-led efforts to counter the North Korean threat have been challenged by simmering tensions between South Korea and Japan that date back to Japan’s colonial domination of the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century. Tensions rose so high in 2019 that South Korea threatened to cancel a key intelligence-sharing pact with Japan.
South Koreans still bristle at Japan’s treatment of the country, first as a colony and then during World War II. Japanese officials say Tokyo made reparations long ago and have accused Seoul of trying to revive historical grievances for domestic political gain.
In 2018, Tokyo accused a South Korean navy destroyer of targeting a Japanese aircraft with fire-control radar. Japan subsequently announced trade sanctions on exports vital to South Korea’s technology sector. The move triggered outbursts of anti-Japan sentiment in South Korea.
Still, Japan and South Korea have upheld their three-way alliance with the U.S., and the tensions began easing this year in the face of increasingly aggressive North Korean ballistic missile tests and U.S. intelligence warnings that Pyongyang may be on the verge of carrying out its seventh test of a nuclear bomb.
North Korea has not tested a nuclear bomb since 2017.
With concerns mounting in June, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and newly inaugurated South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met with President Biden on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Madrid. They expressed hope of resolving historical tensions.
The Associated Press has since reported that Mr. Kishida is pushing for a dramatic expansion of defense spending that would give Japan the world’s third-largest military budget, after the United States and China.
Japan is upgrading its missile capabilities and reportedly preparing them for preemptive strikes. Critics say such a move would fundamentally change Tokyo’s defense policy and breach the post-World War II pacifist constitution that has long placed limits on the Japanese military’s use of force.
Strongest alliance ‘anywhere’
“This alliance between [South Korea] and the United States … from a military alliance perspective, I truly do believe is the strongest alliance that the United States has anywhere in the world,” he told “The Washington Brief.”
Gen. Sharp noted the unique “combined forces” aspect of the alliance that puts U.S. and South Korean soldiers and officers on equal footing at every level of the command structure. He also pointed to the integrated presence in South Korea of the U.N. command, which includes military officers from 18 other nations.
With the North an ever-present conventional and nuclear threat, Seoul’s “defense budget is larger, percentagewise of their GDP, than any of our NATO allies,” the general said.
Mr. Mansourov, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, pointed to North Korea’s new law enshrining a policy of preemptive nuclear strikes to protect the regime in the event that leader Kim Jong-un comes under attack or North Korea faces an imminent nuclear strike.
“Essentially, it says that North Korea can launch a preemptive nuclear strike if it detects an imminent attack of any kind,” Mr. Mansourov said.
Mr. DeTrani, a former CIA official and longtime U.S. diplomatic adviser, said the stakes are so high that “we really do need to sit down with the North Koreans to move away from extreme tension that we have and the possibility of greater escalation and the possibility of stumbling into something of an accidental … conflict that could even possibly include the use of nuclear weapons.”
“They have over 6,000 medium- and long-range artillery systems, [and] 4,000 of those could hit Korea — could hit Seoul — without even moving,” he said.
“North Korea also has the largest special operations forces in the world, and they have a cyber capability that they have demonstrated,” Gen. Sharp said. He pointed to Pyongyang’s development of other futuristic weapons “from hypersonics to heavy missiles that can fire from many different platforms, including submarines.”
• Guy Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.
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