North Korea’s game of intimidation is ramping up. The latest round took the form of threats against the United States for hosting a nongovernment conference about Pyongyang’s ugly human rights record. The session, organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and held last month in Washington, D.C., coincided with the first anniversary of a devastating report released by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights. The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency slammed the event as a “hostile act” and threatened a strong response. And Pyongyang, despite its apparent lack of involvement, publicly cheered this month’s shocking attack on U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert.
For North Korea watchers, such threats and public vitriol have become routine as Pyongyang positions itself against the United States in a cyclical game of provocation followed by negotiation. Earlier this year, it offered to suspend any nuclear test if the U.S. and South Korea canceled their annual joint military exercises. Washington and Seoul refused to succumb to the nuclear blackmail and held the exercises as planned. As North Korea continues to modernize its missile technology and improve its accuracy and range, the U.S. and its allies will continue to pressure Pyongyang through the development of anti-ballistic-missile defense and other forms of extended deterrence. Compounding the threat of missile attacks from Pyongyang is its evolving nuclear weapon program. The North has already conducted three nuclear tests and added uranium enrichment capabilities to its existing stock of weapons-grade plutonium.
North Korea’s intransigence and history of provocations have galvanized stronger security cooperation among the U.S., Japan and South Korea. The most striking recent examples include Pyongyang’s shelling of Yeongpyeong Island in South Korea and the sinking of a South Korean naval corvette, Cheonan, in 2010. The two attacks resulted in the deaths of 50 South Koreans. In response to this, trilateral cooperation has been building, including high-level dialogues between respective Defense and Foreign ministries as well as joint naval drills and coordination at various international forums. In addition to senior-level liaisons, the three nations continue to have basic-level officer exchanges.
Despite this history of cooperation, the trilateral relationship — even when narrowly focused on North Korea — has largely underperformed. The main reason for this is the strained relationship between Japan and South Korea, which remain at odds over history and their territorial dispute regarding the Liancourt Rocks, islets in the Sea of Japan. The public barbs between Seoul and Tokyo have intensified since Japan’s election of conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has publicly made clear his intention to reframe the historical narrative of Japan’s culpability during World War II. While the Japan–South Korea relationship remains stalled, there has been some movement on the trilateral front. In late December, the three countries made an information-sharing pact that focuses on the emerging threat of North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile programs. The new mechanism essentially allows the three nations to exchange classified information about Pyongyang, ostensibly bolstering their joint deterrence efforts. Before this pact, the U.S. worked with its allies separately, in a silo approach.
The pact is a welcome development but only a small step toward realizing a more comprehensive trilateral security relationship. The new agreement has notable limitations. First, it is narrowly focused on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and makes no mention of cooperation in other key areas on the conventional or cyber level. Second, the agreement, while theoretically trilateral, is essentially the marriage of two information-sharing pacts (between the U.S. and Japan and between the U.S. and South Korea). The new agreement does not create a mechanism for all parties to evenly share information. Rather it positions Washington as an intermediary through which information can be passed from Seoul to Tokyo and vice versa.
The preferable arrangement would be a direct information-sharing agreement between Japan and South Korea, which would eliminate the cumbersome need for the U.S. to act as an intermediary. A bilateral general security of military information agreement (GSOMIA) remains the ultimate goal, but it has, until now, been scuttled because of political sensitivity in Seoul. Japan and South Korea had planned to sign a GSOMIA in 2012, but South Korea’s then-President Lee Myung-bak pulled out at the last hour after news of the pact was leaked to the Korean press.
Critics of such a bilateral agreement often point to its lack of popular support in South Korea. But this assertion remains dubious. For the past several years, the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul has been conducting polls to gauge public sentiment regarding a GSOMIA. Even after Abe’s visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013, a majority of South Koreans supported signing a GSOMIA with Japan. According to a report last year from the Asan Institute, 50.8 percent of South Koreans surveyed said they supported a bilateral agreement with Japan.
Efforts to enhance trilateral deterrence against North Korea depend on stronger cooperation between Japan and South Korea. The new trilateral agreement is a good first step and, despite its flaws, is more than just a symbolic move. The next logical steps will be to work toward a Japan–South Korea GSOMIA as well as a bilateral cross-servicing agreement, which would permit logistical cooperation between the countries in areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
There are other common strategic interests that transcend deterrence of North Korea. Tokyo and Seoul would both benefit from a less divisive relationship as they interact with China. Moreover, Japan and South Korea can do more to combat emerging nontraditional security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region, such as climate change, maritime piracy and cybersecurity. Both sides have regular dialogues on these matters, but their importance has been lost in the political chasms between the two. Enhancing cooperation in these areas, alongside a robust trilateral deterrence framework on North Korea, would help to build confidence in the bilateral security relationship and position it to meet new and emerging threats.