Japan Matters for South Korea’s Security

Japan Chair Platform

A few months ago, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan raised concerns in South Korea when he stated in a Diet committee hearing that U.S. Marines cannot rush to defend South Korea without first engaging in prior consultation with Japan. Seoul’s fear is that Abe can effectively control Washington’s assistance to Seoul in a contingency on the Korean peninsula.

What Abe said is legally accurate, but Seoul has little to worry about given the importance with which Tokyo views the Korean peninsula’s impact on Japan’s security. That said, Abe’s statement is important in reminding South Koreans about Japan’s significance for South Korea’s security. And no, it has nothing to do with collective self-defense.
At issue in Abe’s statement are exchanged notes between Tokyo and Washington regarding the implementation of Article VI of their bilateral security treaty. The notes state, “major changes in the deployment into Japan of United States armed forces, major changes in their equipment, and the use of facilities and areas in Japan as bases for military combat operations to be undertaken from Japan other than those conducted under Article V of the said Treaty, shall be the subjects of prior consultation with the Government of Japan.”
The reason for this agreement, as well as legal peculiarities designed to defang Japan’s military after World War II, is to prevent Japan from suffering the horrors of another war. As such, special laws and rules were created governing not only how the Self-Defense Forces are used, but how U.S. Forces-Japan are used if not directly linked to Japan’s defense. Debates over these peculiarities still churn, with the most recent focused on Japan’s ability to defend another state, known as the exercise of collective self-defense. But it is within this context that Abe’s comment matters, because if Washington wants to deploy its forces to the Korean peninsula from bases in Japan, it has to consult first with Tokyo. This even applies to the seven UN-designated bases in Japan. In other words, Washington has to consult with Tokyo for all cases of combat operations outside of Japan, even Korea.1 Herein lies Japan’s significance and South Korea’s fear.
Critics of Abe mistakenly conflate this prior consultation with the collective self-defense debate, yet the two are unrelated. In fact, the issue of prior consultation far predates Abe. In a 1969 speech delivered at the National Press Club in Washington, Japanese prime minister Eisaku Sato emphasized the need to think about Japan’s national interest when deciding whether Japan would allow the United States to use facilities in Japan. Recognizing the impact an armed attack on South Korea could have on Japan’s security, he indicated the importance of being forward-looking in regards to prior consultation. This is the same message as Abe’s. Japan will not write a blank check to the United States to exercise force from its shores. Instead, Tokyo will consider its decision through the lens of its own security.
But this is why South Koreans should not worry. Japanese leaders have long understood the importance the Korean peninsula plays in its security. It was the fear that the peninsula was a dagger pointing at the heart of Japan that led Japanese military thinkers to war with China in the late nineteenth century and again with Imperial Russia in the early twentieth century. In the November 1969 Joint Statement with U.S. president Richard Nixon, Eisaku Sato explicitly stated that South Korea’s security “was essential to Japan’s own security.” And for the past two decades, continual provocations by Pyongyang have motivated Tokyo to work with its neighbors in a Six-Party framework to disarm North Korea. Simply put, for better or for worse, Japan has consistently seen its security as linked to the Korean peninsula.
It is questionable whether this feeling is shared by South Korea. Polls by Korea’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies have shown a public wary of Japan. In the South Koreans and Their Neighbors 2014 poll, 66.8 percent of Koreans hold a negative opinion on the expansion of Japan’s security role, and 60.6 percent hold a negative opinion of U.S. support for this expansion. What is worrisome is that in the 2013 iteration of the poll, 55.9 percent of Koreans listed Japan as a country that poses a threat to South Korea, 4 percent fewer than those who chose China. And in the 2014 iteration, despite South Korea being a democratic ally of the United States, 79.3 percent felt it was necessary for Korea to increase its security cooperation with undemocratic China should Washington and Tokyo increase their security cooperation. Instead of an acknowledgment of the importance Japan and the U.S.-Japan alliance will play in regard to Korean security, the focus is almost always exclusively on Japan’s potential threat or disputes over historical issues and the Liancourt Rocks (although Seoul does not recognize a dispute).
This narrative is stale. Japan is not a threat to South Korea; quite the contrary. Just as Japan’s security depends on Korea’s security, so does Korea’s depend on Japan’s. This does not mean, however, the possibility of Japanese troop deployment to the peninsula under the new collective self-defense interpretation, because Japanese leaders’ interpretation as to what is permissible is the same as South Korea’s. Rather, it means seeing Japan as a critical security partner.
No doubt, Tokyo has its own work to do. Above everything else, Japanese leaders must continue to reassure South Korean leadership that its defense changes are not meant to expand Japan’s military operations onto the Korean peninsula, unless an explicit request comes from Seoul. Also, continuing to be transparent in Japan’s decisionmaking process is critical to revealing motivations, objectives, and priorities. Related, given the important role the peninsula plays in Japan’s security, Tokyo needs to continue to work with Seoul regarding North Korea. If it is a bilateral issue between Tokyo and Pyongyang—such as abductees—it behooves Tokyo to keep Seoul informed of its intentions so as not to risk losing a united front (i.e., U.S.-Japan–South Korea) vis-à-vis Pyongyang. Finally, Japanese leadership needs to refrain from pursuing historical issues that are expected to provoke Korean anger and resentment. While leadership in Japan may not view as problematic visitations to Yasukuni Shrine or the review of official apologies regarding Japan’s wartime acts, Koreans do.
Tokyo needs to be more cognizant of the implications of such actions, because they support the narrative that Japanese leaders are attempting to whitewash or dilute Japan’s wartime past.
It is understandable that Abe’s statement causes a stir in South Korea. Yet, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where leadership in Tokyo would not only risk its own security, but its relationship with its ally, by playing politics with a U.S. request simply to gain some leverage over South Korea. But while this should reassure Seoul, it should also serve as a reminder of why Japan is important to South Korea’s security. America’s allies need each other. The sooner they can agree, the better.

Jeffrey W. Hornung is associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu, HI, and an adjunct fellow with the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. The views expressed above are those of the author.
1This understanding was most clearly articulated on June 16, 2010, by then-Foreign Minister Okada Katsuya.
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Jeffrey W. Hornung