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J. Berkshire Miller - South Korean defense ties key for Japan

The geopolitical and security challenges posed by China and North Korea will dominate the agenda of new Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada in the coming months. Yet a sustained effort to nurture Japan's defense relationships with like-minded partners will also be needed.

After its alliance with the U.S., there is arguably no more critical partner for Japan's security than South Korea. Unfortunately, due to histrionics on both sides, the bilateral security relationship has lagged in recent years and enhanced security relations remain politically challenging for Seoul.

The appointment of Inada as part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's cabinet shake up on Aug. 3 was controversial due to her hawkish security views and her previous positions on contentious historical issues. Inada has been a frequent visitor to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan's war dead, a habit that has already raised alarm with China and South Korea. Abe's choice of Inada for defense was also surprising considering the high-profile nature of the post after the passage of last year's controversial legislation to allow the military to back up overseas allies.

The serious challenges facing Inada range from increased provocations from North Korea to Chinese assertiveness in the East China Sea, especially around the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands. Increased tension with the local government in Okinawa over the relocation of a U.S. military base is an added pressure. Magnifying these challenges is the fact that Inada is a relative amateur in foreign policy and defense-related matters.

The fragile Japan-South Korea relationship has been slowly improving over the past year but Inada's appointment will make further progress more challenging. The deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system to South Korea makes defense information sharing between Tokyo and Seoul urgent. But this may prove politically difficult for Seoul, even though Abe will probably force Inada to refrain from harmful comments or new visits to Yasukuni. Indeed, Inada has already indicated that she will remain consistent with the Abe cabinet on historical issues and did not visit Yasukuni on Aug. 15, the day Japan's World War II defeat is commemorated. But the Abe administration took no chances, and sent her to Djibouti during the anniversary to visit a Self-Defense Forces unit.

Pyongyang provocations

Greater defense and security cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo is important for several reasons. First, in tandem with mutual alliances with Washington, it furthers a common interest in containing and mitigating future provocations from Pyongyang. Second, while not aiming to isolate China, stronger Japan-South Korea security ties can provide a more reliable hedge against Beijing's efforts to exploit any fissures in the U.S. alliance network. Cooperation can also help in non-traditional security areas, such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and search and rescue efforts. This can both improve joint operational cohesiveness and also build confidence.

A year ago, the appointment of Inada to the position of defense minister might have been enough to torpedo the gradual rebuilding of relations between Tokyo and Seoul. But things have changed since last year's landmark agreement aimed at resolving the decades-long feud over World War II-era "comfort women."

Under the agreement, Japan agreed to provide 1 billion yen (around $10 million) to a foundation established by the South Korean government to assist former Korean comfort women. Tokyo also reiterated its statement of remorse and apology towards Seoul over the matter, this time officially on behalf of Prime Minister Abe. In return, South Korea agreed to accept the agreement as final and committed to refrain from criticizing Japan on the matter in international forums. South Korea insisted that it would work to "solve the issue" of a controversial statue of a comfort woman that stands directly in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. The two sides firmed up plans for the new foundation on Aug. 25 on the sidelines of a summit of the foreign ministers of China, South Korea and Japan, with Japan again raising the issue of the statue.

The political capital built up as a result of the deal appears to have been sufficient for Seoul to weather Inada's appointment. Indeed, on the Aug. 15 anniversary, both Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye issued positive statements. Park noted a desire to forge "forward-looking" relations with Tokyo. Abe stressed in his memorial address that Japan would "never again repeat the devastation of war." The good news is that Tokyo and Seoul appear to be keen to return to an era of pragmatic relations, despite political forces that oppose such a detente.

It is important for Japan and South Korea to look towards genuine cooperation in the security realm. The first step is for both sides to maintain political strength in the face of criticism over the implementation of the "comfort women" deal. As promised, Japan should quickly release the agreed funds to the designated South Korean foundation. Meanwhile, Seoul should continue to engage with local activists with the aim of finding an acceptable resolution with regard to the comfort woman statue.

The first steps of enhanced defense cooperation should focus on trilateral exercises with the U.S. Trilateral exercises remain a critical aspect of deterrence against Pyongyang, and it is important to dispel the notion that the trilateral front is fractured. This cooperation is useful and has been happening for several years, but it lacks a formalized structure and the exercises remain somewhat ad hoc. It is important to regularize the effort and involve other actors such as coast guard units.

Bilateral discussions

Second, Japan and South Korea could focus on finalizing basic, but important, bilateral agreements on military information sharing, equipment acquisition and cross-servicing. This will help shore up deterrence and planning for crisis scenarios on the Korean Peninsula.

Inking these agreements would also help to relieve the burdensome role of intermediary played by Washington, which channels military information between its two allies. A trilateral military information sharing agreement regarding Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs was signed by Seoul, Tokyo and Washington in late 2015. This was a positive but not sufficient step towards better information sharing on North Korean provocations.

Third, Japan and South Korea should engage in bilateral discussions on the implications of THAAD deployment for their regional security interests and conduct informal talks on the future of missile defense in the region. While many of these discussions are already taking place, they are almost completely done in a trilateral context with the U.S. While Washington remains a key player on these issues, it is also useful to have some bilateral discussions on the matter that are not U.S.-led.

Fourth, Seoul and Tokyo should engage in a broader maritime security dialogue that addresses the current geostrategic landscape, especially after the July ruling on the South China Sea by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Such talks will be sensitive, especially due to the two countries' own dispute over a small island group, but it is still possible to discuss developments without being sidetracked into a blame game.

While Inada's appointment is concerning on some levels, it seems that the Japan-South Korea relationship has evolved enough over the past year to be able to withstand some political headwinds. The caveat, however, is that Inada remains mum on historical issues and stays away from Yasukuni. The mutual challenges and opportunities faced by both sides are too significant to let politics again push aside security cooperation.

Jonathan Berkshire Miller is a fellow on East Asia at the EastWest Institute, an organization focused on conflict resolution in New York.

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