South Korea-Japan relations overshadowed for almost over a century by historical grievances, political and trade disputes, now seem to have an opportunity to reset ties and to reconcile due to the existential threat of a nuclear-armed North Korea, which has been consistently increasing and upgrading its ballistic missile launch capabilities. The disputes that had earlier been impediments are now slowly being resolved or being laid aside as Pyongyang continuously develops its weapons technology at a rapid pace with upgraded missiles that will be even harder to intercept.
North Korea Sabre Rattling: Simulation of Tactical Nuclear Operations
It was reported that between the period from 25th September to 9th October 2022, the North Korean regime had test launched at least 13 missiles. One of the launches on 3rd October 2022 was believed to be a Hwasong-12 IRBM (Inter-Mediate Range Ballistic Missile) fired from the Chagang province of North Korea. It flew over the Aomori prefecture of Japan, covering a total distance of 4600 km before landing in the Pacific Ocean some 3200 km away from Japan.[i] The range covered by the Hwasong-12 IRBM has also raised significant concerns for the United States (US), as it demonstrated North Korea’s capability to strike the US island of Guam from Pyongyang. North Korea has claimed that its missile launches were in protest of the increasing military exercises involving South Korea, Japan, and US, including a naval exercise involving the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier.[ii] The trilateral anti-submarine warfare exercise in seas within the vicinity of Korea and Japan was held for the first time in five years on 30th September 2022.[iii] However, it is most likely that the recent missile test launches by North Korea were not a retaliation to the military exercises but a pre-planned simulation for “tactical nuclear operations”.[iv]
The last time the Hwasong-12 IRBM was launched over Japan was in 2017, the same year when North Korea had conducted its last nuclear test, which was its sixth in total.[v] It has been speculated that with the latest flurry of missile test launches, North Korea is closer to conducting its seventh nuclear test. It has, in fact, been reported that the Punggye-ri nuclear test site has been undergoing reconstruction and restoration since March 2022, in preparation of a potential seventh underground nuclear experiment.[vi] In addition, reports suggest that on 12th October 2022, North Korea successfully test-fired two long-range strategic cruise missiles, to enhance combat efficiency and reconfirm the operation of tactical nukes.[vii] Amid concerns over the missile launches with tactical nuke capabilities and the threat of an impending nuclear test, it is pertinent to determine the possible regional and global responses over the provocations.
South Korea’s Response
So far, South Korea which is the most vulnerable due to its proximate geographical location to North Korea has issued warnings of a “resolute response”.[viii] In a show of strength and preparedness for a direct air attack, the South Korean military had deployed 30 fighters after North Korea flew more than 12 warplanes a few kilometres from the inter-Korean border.[ix] In fact, the Yoon Suk-yeol government has been proposing a more hardliner approach than its predecessor, aiming foremost for the denuclearization of North Korea, and then in return provision of economic compensation.[x] Prior to his election as the 20th President of South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol had also signalled the possibility of a “pre-emptive strike” in the likely scenario of a North Korean provocation involving a missile bearing a nuclear weapon.[xi] In the National Security Council meeting held on 4th October 2022, the Yoon Suk-yeol government had also taken up the stance to meet further provocations by the North with strong countermeasures.[xii]
One of the countermeasures that South Korea has been planning is the “Three Axis-Defense System”[xiii] or the “Three-pronged defense system”[xiv] as originally introduced in 2016. This system is expected to have a “strategic command”, which would be the overarching organisation implementing the “three-axis” defence system. The aim of the system is to counter North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile threats. The “three-axis” primarily encapsulates three phases of military action by South Korea upon North Korea. Firstly, the Kill Chain pre-emptive strike platform. Secondly, the Korean Air and Missile Defense system. Lastly, an operational plan to incapacitate the North Korea leadership via the “Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation”.[xv] The South Korean military is also staging its annual major 12-day Hoguk field training exercise from 17 to 28 October 2022.[xvi] It is widely expected that Pyongyang will use the Hoguk exercises as another excuse to test launch a greater number of missiles capable of tactical nukes. Another scenario being predicted is the eventual seventh nuclear test by North Korea before the end of the year.
In the case of Japan, the 3rd October missile test launch of Hwasong-12 by North Korea had prompted Tokyo to issue a rare J-alert for residents to take cover, the first since 2017.[xvii] In terms of defending against missile threats like Hwasong 12, the Japanese Self Defense Force (SDF) recently claimed to have the capability to take measures but had avoided taking any actions as no damage to Japanese territory was anticipated in these test missiles. However, with Japan constantly revising its approaches to respond to national security threats, the possibility of Tokyo adopting a pre-emptive or counterstrike capability will now find more impetus. This stance can also be supported through the statements inscribed in their latest annual White Paper Defense of Japan 2022. In the White Paper, Japan has firmly stated its position on examining every possible option as it draws up its new National Security Strategy to protect the lives and livelihood of its people. The option includes “counterstrike capabilities”, which is being projected as the option to strike enemy bases after an armed attack on Japan occurs, even if there was no actual damage on Japanese soil.[xviii] In addition, Japan being a non-nuclear state relies heavily upon the extended deterrence offered by the US as per their collective security arrangements.
South Korea-Japan Precarious Reconciliation in Sight
Due to the existential threat from North Korea’s advancing nuclear program and constant provocation through testing of its upgraded missile technology capabilities, the security environment surrounding the Korean Peninsula has gained further unpredictability. However, the motive behind the antagonistic rhetoric as well as repeated provocations by North Korea, traditionally to sever any form of security cooperation in the region, seems to be having the opposite effect. South Korea and Japan replete with historical disagreements have even decided to set aside their political differences for the moment to work together on a security cooperation over North Korea.[xix] The leaders of South Korea and Japan had a telephonic conversation on 6th October 2022, where they agreed upon a “bilateral cooperation for a stern response”, while at the same time acknowledging the need to “deliver a clear message that Pyongyang must pay for its reckless provocations”.[xx] At the current juncture, there is at least a coherent mutual signalling from the two countries to keep continued close monitoring regarding North Korea’s further provocative actions including a potential seventh nuclear test that would also be its first after 2017.
Most of the signs of thaw between South Korea and Japan can also be credited to the new South Korean administration under President Yoon Suk-yeol, which has taken a pledge for a “future-oriented approach”[xxi] towards Japan based on the “Kim-Obuchi declaration” of 1998.[xxii] The “Kim-Obuchi Declaration” had proposed a blueprint for a “future-oriented relationship based on reconciliation”.[xxiii] President Yoon Suk-yeol wants to revive the spirit of the 1998 declaration, hoping that Seoul and Tokyo would forge a forward-looking partnership while facing up to their shared history.[xxiv] However, amidst the gradual convergence on mutual security cooperation over North Korea’s provocations, there are sensitivities that could rupture the emerging partnership. An example of this can be drawn from the South Korean protest that was held against the Japanese government’s repeated inclusion of sovereignty claims over Dokdo islands in the latest Annual White Paper titled Defense of Japan 2022, released on 22 July 2022.[xxv] The North Korean threat has been a point of mutual interest that could not be pursued in earnest by South Korea and Japan in the past due to historical, political and trade disputes. In fact, the Moon Jae-in-Shinzo Abe era had one of the most challenging bilateral chapters when South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms in 2018 regarding wartime labour compensations.[xxvi] The new administrations of South Korea and Japan seem to be attempting their best to resolve the contentious compensation issue, as observed through the 19th September 2022 meeting where reaffirmations were echoed to reach an equitable solution at an early date.[xxvii]
As the previously strained bilateral relations between South Korea and Japan move towards a gradual mending, primarily due to the “future-oriented approach” under the new administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol, it has also provided a reorientation in security cooperation for the region. Previously, even as South Korea and Japan were US treaty alliance partners, and inextricably linked by the common threat of North Korea’s nuclearisation, the scope of a closer trilateral security cooperation was uneasy and inhibited. The inhibitions had snowballed in 2019, when the historical disagreements had impacted their bilateral economic relations as well. Japan had imposed export restrictions on sensitive materials that South Korean technology industry required, as Tokyo had claimed that it ended up in the hands of North Korea.[xxviii] In such a scenario, it was even more difficult for the US to sway South Korea and Japan towards an effective trilateral cooperation. However, after the introduction of Yoon Suk-yeol as President of South Korea and Fumio Kishida’s election as Prime Minister of Japan, there have been positive signs of attempts at better communication between the two countries. The US, which was acting as a mediator between the two countries has also done them a great service by introducing the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) in September 2022. With South Korea and Japan becoming early signatories to the framework, it is potentially expected to ease the vulnerabilities posed by critical supply chains of sensitive materials, thus bridging the earlier trade disagreements.
Trilateral Security Cooperation
Furthermore, perhaps as a signal of improving South Korea-Japan ties and commitment towards shared security, on 15th August 2022 the trilateral security cooperation conducted its first “Missile Defense Exercise” in Hawaii since 2017.[xxix] Following this, the US, Japan and South Korean navies then conducted an anti-submarine drill on 30th September 2022 in the Sea of Japan/East Sea, which was also a first since 2017. These naval drills were being conducted amidst heightened concerns over North Korea’s test launching of ballistic missiles in the Sea of Japan/East Sea that began from 25th September 2022.[xxx] In what could be observed as a show of strength plus closer commitment towards shared security, on 6th October 2022 there was another trilateral “Ballistic Missile Defense Exercise” staged in the Sea of Japan/East Sea as a response to North Korea’s test launch of its IRBM over Japan on 4th October 2022.[xxxi]
Closer security cooperation between the trilateral partners which had earlier not progressed much on account of historical differences between South Korea and Japan is now being carried forward. As North Korea’s antagonistic rhetoric and repeated provocations increasingly threaten the regional stability and security environment of the Korean Peninsula, the current developments suggest that South Korea and Japan with support of the US would be undertaking a hardliner approach towards Pyongyang. These approaches could manifest in various forms of regular joint exercises in the Sea of Japan/East Sea such as trilateral Ballistic Missile Defense exercises, trilateral Anti-Submarine Warfare and naval drills, and trilateral air exercises to deter North Korea. With the primary focus being the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, the diplomacy option will always be to vocalise the importance of full implementation of the relevant UNSC resolutions upon North Korea by the international community. However, in the event of a conventional or tactical nuclear strike by North Korea, there are reservations whether the US commitments to both Japan[xxxii] and South Korea[xxxiii] in terms of extended nuclear deterrence would stand firm. Finally, there is also the possibility that China and Russia, who are permanent members of the UNSC, might come to the aid of North Korea in diplomatic as well as military terms. Thus, in all likelihood, the Korean Peninsula could reignite history of the Cold War and become the next staging ground for conflict after Ukraine.
Historically, as North Korea developed its tactical nuclear operations, it would have been natural for South Korea and Japan to converge against the mutual threat, especially with both of them being treaty allies of the US. However, this was not to be so, especially because of the numerous disputes between Seoul and Tokyo. The current administrations of South Korea and Japan do come across as pragmatic enough to lay aside, for now, the historical, political and trade disputes hindering the bilateral and trilateral security cooperation when faced with the North Korean threat. It needs to be seen whether South Korea and Japan in their emerging reconciliation can collaborate in a determined manner to mitigate the escalatory and destabilising actions of North Korea especially amidst speculations that Pyongyang has completed preparations for its seventh nuclear test.[xxxiv] As the Korean Peninsula scales tilt in favour of Pyongyang with its increasing nuclear posturing and attacking capabilities, it is time for South Korea and Japan to reconcile and commit to a forward looking agenda for a future-oriented partnership.
*Dr. Tunchinmang Langel, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi
Disclaimer: Views Expressed are personal.
[i] Jesse Johnson and Kanako Takahara, “North Korea fires ballistic missile over Japan for first time since 2017,” The Japan Times, 4 October 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/10/04/national/north-korea-appears-launch-ballistic-missile-japan/, Accessed on 11 October 2022
[ii] Yonhap News Agency, “Yoon warns of 'resolute' response after N. Korea's IRBM launch,” 4 October 2022, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20221004002051315?section=nk/nk, Accessed on 12 October 2022
[iii] Commander - United States Pacific Fleet, “Japan, Republic of Korea Navies operate together with Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group,” 28 September 2022, https://www.cpf.navy.mil/Newsroom/News/Article/3173819/japan-republic-of-korea-navies-operate-together-with-ronald-reagan-carrier-stri/, Accessed on 12 October 2022
[iv] Justin McCurry, “North Korea says missile tests simulated striking South with tactical nuclear weapons,” The Guardian, 10 October 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/10/north-korea-says-missile-tests-simulated-striking-south-with-tactical-nuclear-weapons, Accessed on 13 October 2022
[v] CTBTO, “September 2017 DPRK Nuclear Test,” 3 September 2017, https://www.ctbto.org/our-work/detecting-nuclear-tests/2017-dprk-nuclear-test, Accessed on 12 October 2022
[vi] Yonhap News Agency, “N. Korea carrying out construction at Punggye-ri nuclear test site: sources,” 27 March 2022, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20220327001200325?input=tw, Accessed on 12 October 2022
[vii] KCNA Watch, “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Guides Test-Fire of Long-Range Strategic Cruise Missiles,” 13 October 2022, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1665614202-446788998/respected-comrade-kim-jong-un-guides-test-fire-of-long-range-strategic-cruise-missiles/, Accessed on 13 October 2022
[viii] Yonhap News Agency, “Yoon warns of 'resolute' response after N. Korea's IRBM launch,” 4 October 2022, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20221004002051315?section=nk/nk, Accessed on 12 October 2022
[ix] Korea Times, “Escalating tensions on peninsula,” 7 October 2022, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinon/2022/10/202_337484.html, Accessed on 12 October 2022
[x] Ji Da-gyum, “Yoon proposes ‘audacious’ road map for North Korea’s denuclearization,” Korea Herald, 15 August 2022, https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20220815000240, Accessed on 12 October 2022
[xi] Hankyoreh, “Yoon says preemptive strike is only answer to N. Korea’s hypersonic missiles,” Hankyoreh, 12 January 2022, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/1027059.html, Accessed on 12 October 2022
[xii] Korea Times, “Escalating tensions on peninsula,” 7 October 2022, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinon/2022/10/202_337484.html, Accessed on 12 October 2022
[xiii] Korea Times, “South Korea to create 'strategic command' to lead 'three-axis' system against North Korea's threats,” 6 July 2022, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2022/07/103_332275.html, Accessed on 18 October 2022
[xiv] HANKYOREH, “South Korea announces ‘Massive Punishment and Retaliation’ in response to fifth nuke test,” 13 September 2016, https://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/761301.html, Accessed on 17 October 2022
[xvi] Ji Da-gyum, “S.Korea begins major Hoguk field training exercise amid N.Korea’s saber-rattling,” Korea Herald, 17 October 2022, https://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20221017000637, Accessed 17 October 2022
[xvii] Japan Times, “Japan residents wake up to rare J-Alert missile warning,” 4 October 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/10/04/national/jalert-japan-north-korea-warning/, Accessed on 12 October 2022
[xviii] Ministry of Defense of Japan, Defense of Japan 2022, pp. 196, https://www.mod.go.jp/en/publ/w_paper/wp2022/DOJ2022_EN_Full_02.pdf, Accessed on 12 October 2022
[xix] The Japan Times, “Japanese and South Korean leaders confirm security cooperation over North Korea,” 7 October 2022, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/10/07/national/japan-south-korea-kishida-yoon-north-korea/, Accessed on 13 October 2022
[xx] Office of the 20th President, “President Yoon, Japanese PM mention 'positive flow in ties' in phone talks”, 7 October 2022, https://eng.president.go.kr/media/press.php?pagenumber=1&at=view&idx=98, Accessed on 13 October 2022
[xxi] Yonhap News Agency, “Yoon calls for future-oriented approach to S. Korea-Japan relations,” 28 March 2022, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20220328002951315, Accessed on 13 October 2022
[xxii] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan-Republic of Korea Joint Declaration
A New Japan-Republic of Korea Partnership towards the Twenty-first Century,” 8 October 1998, https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/korea/joint9810.html, Accessed on 13 October 2022
[xxiv] The Korea times, “Mend ties with Japan”, 1 May 2022, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2022/08/202_328330.html, Accessed 27 October 202
[xxv] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea, “MOFA Spokesperson’s Commentary on ‘Defense of Japan 2022’,” 22 July 2022, https://www.mofa.go.kr/eng/brd/m_5676/view.do?seq=322067&page=3, Accessed on 13 October 2022
[xxvi] Choe Sang-hun, “South Korean Court Orders Mitsubishi of Japan to Pay for Forced Wartime Labor,” The New York Times, 29 November 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/29/world/asia/south-korea-wartime-compensation-japan.html, Accessed on 13 October 2022
[xxvii] The Asahi Shimbun, “Tokyo, Seoul will work to quickly resolve wartime labor issue,” 20 September 2022, https://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14723221, Accessed on 13 October 2022
[xxviii] Isabel Reynolds, Jenny Leonard, and Sohee Kim, “Japan-South Korea Feud Heats Up Over Tokyo’s North Korea Claims,” Bloomberg,12 July 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-07-12/japan-south-korea-to-meet-on-export-curbs-rattling-ties, Accessed on 14 October 2022
[xxix] US Department of Defense, “U.S., Republic of Korea, and Japan Participate in Missile Defense Exercise in Hawaii,” 15 August 2022, https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3128442/us-republic-of-korea-and-japan-participate-in-missile-defense-exercise-in-hawaii/, Accessed on 14 October 202
[xxx] Kyodo News, “South Korea, U.S., Japan hold anti-submarine drills amid North Korea threat,” 30 September 2022, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2022/09/b0fa8d0bcbd5-s-korea-us-japan-hold-anti-submarine-drills-amid-n-korea-threat.html, Accessed on 14 October 2022
[xxxi] Commander – United States Pacific Fleet, “U.S., Japan, and the Republic of Korea Conduct a Trilateral Ballistic Missile Defense Exercise,” 6 October 2022, https://www.cpf.navy.mil/Newsroom/News/Article/3182274/us-japan-and-the-republic-of-korea-conduct-a-trilateral-ballistic-missile-defen/, Accessed on 14 October 2022
[xxxii] Ministry of Defense of Japan, “Japan-U.S. Defense Ministerial Meeting (summary),” 5 May 2022, https://www.mod.go.jp/en/article/2022/05/a857233f38c7b2e733ad50bf391d394e59339d4a.html, Accessed on 14 October 2022
[xxxiii] US Department of Defense, “Joint Statement on the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group Meeting,” 16 September 2022, https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3161720/joint-statement-on-the-extended-deterrence-strategy-and-consultation-group-meet/, Accessed on 14 October 2022
[xxxiv] Kyodo News, “Japan warns North Korea may have completed nuclear test preparations,” 13 October 2022, https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2022/10/7cd37683c6b1-japan-warns-n-korea-may-have-completed-nuclear-test-preparations.html, Accessed on 17 October 2022