The U.S.-South Korea military alliance is the “strongest” defense partnership that America has with any nation in the world, according to a former top U.S. commander in the region, but “trilateral cooperation” between the U.S., South Korea and Japan must be improved to more effectively prepare for threats emanating from North Korea.
“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 last served as commander of United Nations Command, ROK-U.S. Combined Forces Command and U.S. Forces Korea from 2008 to 2011.
The tangled history between Japan and South Korea has long complicated Washington’s attempts to coordinate security policy with its two key East Asian allies and present a united front to North Korea, which demonstrated again the threat it poses to the region Tuesday with a major new missile test 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 also brings a very strong strike capability that would greatly contribute to defending against any attack from North Korea,” he said.
Gen. Sharp’s comments during a “Washington Brief” discussion broadcast online Tuesday came as Japan increases its defense spending amid mounting provocations by Pyongyang, and as friction between Seoul and Tokyo 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, as North Korea carried out a wave of missile tests in an 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,” said Gen. Sharp, who stressed that 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 during recent years by long-simmering tensions between South Korea and Japan over bilateral issues and historical tensions dating back to Japan’s long colonial domination of the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century. Things got so bad that Seoul threatened in 2019 to cancel a key intelligence-sharing pact with Japan.
South Koreans still bristle at Japan’s treatment of the country, first as a colony in the early 20th century and then during World War II. Japanese officials have argued Tokyo long ago made reparations for its actions and have accused Seoul of trying to revive historical grievances for domestic political gain.
Friction between the two soared in 2018 when Tokyo accused a South Korean navy destroyer of targeting a Japanese aircraft with fire-control radar. Tokyo subsequently announced trade sanctions targeting exports vital to South Korea’s technology sector — a move that triggered outbursts of anti-Japan sentiment in South Korea.
But the two have upheld their three-way alliance with the U.S., and the tensions began easing earlier this year in the face of increasingly aggressive North Korean ballistic missile tests, as well as U.S. intelligence warnings that Pyongyang may be on the verge of carrying out a seventh test of a nuclear bomb.
North Korea has not carried such a nuclear test since 2017, but as concerns began mounted that one may be imminent last June, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and new South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol met with President Biden on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Madrid and expressed hope to resolve their nations’ historical tensions.
The Associated Press has since reported that Mr. Kishida is pushing for a dramatic expansion of Japanese defense spending that would give Tokyo the world’s third-largest military budget in the coming years, after the United States and China.
Japan is currently upgrading its missile capabilities and reportedly preparing them for potential preemptive strikes — a move critics say would fundamentally change the country’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’
With that as a backdrop, Gen. Sharp emphasized the strength of the military partnership between the U.S. and South Korea, which is home to U.S. Army Garrison-Humphreys, America’s largest overseas military base.
“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 means military officers from 18 other nations from around the world are part of the force.
With the North an ever-present conventional and nuclear threat, Seoul’s “defense budget is larger, percentage wise of their GDP, than any of our NATO allies,” the general noted, spending that is vital as Pyongyang’s leaders are “now talking about having tactical nuclear weapons deployed close to the border” with South Korea.
The Washington Brief’s regular panelists, former CIA official and longtime U.S. diplomatic adviser Joseph DeTrani and Alexandre Mansourov, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, also emphasized the danger posed by the potential deployment of lower-yield, “tactical” nuclear weapons by North Korea.
Mr. Mansourov pointed to the recent passage of a new North Korean law enshrining a policy of preemptive nuclear strikes to protect regime in the event that leader Kim Jong Un comes under attack or North Korea faces the threat of 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 added that the stakes are so high at the moment 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.”
At the same time, Gen. Sharp emphasized that “North Korea has a huge conventional military capability that is located and deployed ready to fight just north of the demilitarized zone.”
“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 Operation Forces in the world and they have a cyber capability that they have demonstrated,” Gen. Sharp added, pointing also to Pyongyang’s development of other futuristic weapons “from hypersonics to heavy missiles that can fire from many different platforms, including submarines.”