After the previous summit with US President Joe Biden in May, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s attendance at the NATO summit was a straight one-two punch that proved a change in the new Korean government’s foreign policy. Contrasting with the Moon Jae-in government’s friendly stance toward China, Yoon instead moved boldly without hesitation. He chose to prioritize the alliance with the US. Under the framework of a Korea-US-Japan cooperation, this could be understood as a signal of a narrowing of the sentimental distance between Korea and Japan, which was suffering from a deep emotional cleavage stemming from historical issues. It does not necessarily mean that Yoon’s government will turn the previous foreign policies totally upside-down, however, it will be distinguished from the last five years for sure, posing a dilemma for China. Both leaders from Korea and Japan have attended the NATO summit this time. In contrast to how Japan was being criticized for harboring wicked intentions to pressure China by bringing NATO into the game, Beijing, which still holds some expectations for Seoul, has displayed a much milder response toward Korea. This week’s discussion invites Senior Research Fellow Song Whasup from the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis and Hiroyasu Akutsu, professor of International Politics and Security Studies at Heisei International University, who has served at the National Institute for Defense Studies, to discuss Korea and Japan’s foreign policies starting from the NATO summit.
Hwang: How do you evaluate President Yoon Suk-yeol and Prime Minister Kishida’s visits to the NATO summit?
Song: President Yoon Suk-yeol’s participation at the NATO summit can be a huge diplomatic asset, as it presented an opportunity to communicate with numerous leaders from various countries. Furthermore, it can be evaluated that his participation has established a meaningful diplomatic foundation for his term of office, as he played the diplomatic sales card in terms of nuclear power plants and the defense industry, as well as promoting Korea’s bid to host the 2030 World Expo in Busan. In the case of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, he highly evaluated that the US, Korea, and Japan have agreed on trilateral cooperation for North Korea’s denuclearization at the US-Korea-Japan Summit. Considering the security situation surrounding the Korean Peninsula, holding a US-Korea-Japan summit must have contributed to strengthening the deterrence against North Korea.
Akutsu: Although both Japan and Korea are nonmembers of NATO, the participation of both President Yoon and Prime Minister Kishida was a clear message that both countries stand on the side of democracy in its fight against authoritarianism. It may be too early to evaluate their participation in detail, but at this early stage, I can raise a few points at least. First, Yoon, the first-ever Korean president to attend the summit, reminded the world that North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat is growing and continues to be a global issue while NATO members have tended to pay more attention to Russia and China. Second, Kishida, the first-ever Japanese prime minister to attend the summit as well, was able to realize his proposal in the meeting with Korea, Australia and New Zealand on the sidelines of the summit. Third, both countries, in close coordination with the US, effectively utilized this opportunity to resume the Japan-US-Korea trilateral security cooperation meeting for the first time in four years and nine months.
In addition to the above second point, to my understanding, Korea had a few specific purposes beforehand. It includes strengthening the “value alliance” based on a liberal democracy with the 30 NATO member states and partner nations; building the foundation for a comprehensive security network with NATO states and exploring ways to effectively respond to emerging security threats, such as cyber and aerospace threats and climate change; and establishing a NATO mission in Brussels to increase information-sharing and strengthen our networks with NATO members and partner nations. Obviously, Korea was well-accepted as a key partner that shares common values with NATO and the past cooperative achievements were appreciated at the summit. As for economic, cyber and aerospace security, climate change and so on, Korea is expected to play a meaningful role in the future.
Hwang: What are the prospects for the Yoon and Kishida governments’ development of relations with NATO?
Akutsu: Prime Minister Kishida already stated that in order to open up horizons for Japan-NATO cooperation, Japan will accelerate the work to substantially upgrade the Japan-NATO Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program, the cooperation document that exists between Japan and NATO, and develop Japan’s cooperation in the cyber, emerging technologies and maritime security fields. As for defense cooperation, Japan will dispatch Self-Defense Forces officials to the NATO headquarters and expand mutual participation by Japan and NATO as observers in the other’s exercises.
As for Korea, Korea and NATO have also been committed to strengthening relations to address shared security challenges, including cyber defense, nonproliferation and counterterrorism. NATO and Korea have been engaged in dialogue and cooperation since 2005. Like Japan, Korea is also one of NATO’s “partners across the globe.” Since 2012, work has been taken forward through an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program and was renewed in 2019. Political dialogue and practical cooperation are being developed across priority areas, including nonproliferation, cyber defense, counterterrorism, security-related civil science projects, interoperability, chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense, as well as civil preparedness, resilience and disaster relief. Yoon’s participation in this year’s summit will accelerate further cooperation between Korean and NATO in both general and specific terms.
Song: Korea formally joined the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in May, and is preparing for the establishment of the NATO mission. It seems Korea’s further cooperation with NATO in nontraditional security areas will grow stronger, and military exchanges might be expanded, including mutual visits of vessels and so on. However, when we look into NATO’s characteristics, the possibility of fully holding military cooperation with Korea is quite low. Instead, I assume Korea would rather share a strategic consensus with NATO and the response to the international security threats.
Japan established its NATO mission in July 2018, and has conducted a joint exercise with vessels. As Prime Minister Kishida mentioned in the recent summit, security in the Indo-Pacific region and NATO are at an inseparable point. In this sense, cooperation to solidify the connection between the Indo-Pacific region and NATO is expected in the upcoming future.
Hwang: What is the background of Prime Minister Kishida’s proposal for the Korea-Japan-Australia-New Zealand Summit?
Song: The Japanese government has been opposing the change of status quo by force. It seems Prime Minister Kishida has determined that sharing the principle of opposing the change of status quo by force with its partner countries is significant, as he witnessed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Moreover, Japan might have wanted to show off its leadership in promoting the cooperation between NATO and Indo-Pacific partner countries.
Akutsu: In April, China signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean. In response, Australia stepped up efforts to prevent the Solomon Islands from officially signing the agreement and accelerated diplomatic efforts to oppose the security pact. Regarding the US, which already announced in February a plan to open an embassy on the Islands to deepen cooperation with Pacific Island partners, immediately accelerated its diplomatic engagement with the Islands. Naturally, the concern was shared with New Zealand and Japan as well.
Both the US and its allies in the Asia-Pacific have realized that security issues cannot be resolved by one single superpower and that the US allies have to strengthen their capabilities to “help themselves” as well as to “help the others between and among themselves.” As a policy simulation and wargame designer, I would ask: What if US security resources became so sparse in multiple contingencies occurring almost simultaneously in the region that the US allies and partners have to get together to compensate? Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand are not members of NATO, but they have been invited as partners to the NATO summit this time, so I assume that Japan decided to seize this opportunity to meet with the other US allies to forge positive chemistry among them at least to alleviate the above concern.
Hwang: What could be the meaning of Korea’s establishment of the NATO mission?
Song: Once the NATO mission is established, communication with NATO will be systemized and access to information on the agenda that are discussed in NATO will be easier. In other words, we will be able to get the information about NATO’s projects, which basically will extend the range of opportunities to cooperate with NATO in the defense industry along with emerging security areas including cybersecurity. Additionally, starting with NATO itself, opportunities to cooperate with respective NATO member countries in the defense industry, nuclear power plants and emerging security will also be enlarged.
Akutsu: In light of Japan’s experience, Korea’s establishment of the NATO mission means the possibility of deepening and widening cooperation between Korea and the alliance. Korea is expected to increase information-sharing and strengthen its networks with NATO members and partner nations. In Japan’s case, the mission of Japan to NATO was established on July 1, 2018. The North Atlantic Council agreed in May 2018 to accept Japan’s request to designate its embassy to Belgium as its mission to NATO. Then, the ambassador of Japan to Belgium became the head of the mission of Japan to NATO.
Hwang: What direction should Korea-US-Japan cooperation take in the Indo-Pacific Strategy Framework?
Song: The most critical threat in the Indo-Pacific region is North Korea’s nuclear program. The US-Korea-Japan Summit has agreed and emphasized the fact that North Korea’s nuclear issue is what the three countries must emergently respond to. Moreover, as the summit has concentrated on bringing highly intensified economic sanctions to resist North Korea’s further development of nuclear and missiles, the efficiency of sanctions on North Korea will increase. Also, it has not been particularly mentioned in this summit, but the US-Korea-Japan cooperation is expected to play an essential role in establishing the rules of the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
Akutsu: The existing trilateral cooperation is mainly focused on North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, so its function should be expanded to be able to deal with those issues, mainly concerning China, that the other partners in the Indo-Pacific Strategy Community are expected to deal with. Given that three partners have already highlighted the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait and expressed strong opposition to unilateral actions in the South China Sea and increasing tensions in the Indo-Pacific, the further direction for the framework should take those issues into consideration.
Hwang: What are the prospects for security and military cooperation between Korea and Japan, including GSOMIA?
Akutsu: Both Korea and Japan have emphasized the importance of resuming stronger security cooperation within trilateral, not bilateral, security cooperation. So the bilateral cooperation would be improved, including the General Security of Military Information Agreement, within Korea-US-Japan trilateral security cooperation. Given that fact that the issue of history has still been lingering around the bilateral relations, this should be taken as relatively a good start, if not perfect.
Song: Though the GSOMIA between Korea and Japan still exists, practical intelligence sharing is pretty limited. Given that Korea and Japan has announced totally different results on North Korea’s missile test, the intelligence sharing between the two is not going well. First of all, it is necessary to strengthen the intelligence sharing between Korea and Japan on North Korea’s nuclear and missiles to strengthen deterrence against North Korea. On the other hand, as the security cooperation between Korea and Japan has confronted limits due to historical issues, we usually expect the cooperation will meet its limit as long as these issues are not settled. However, when it comes to critical security issues, it is necessary to enhance close communication and cooperation.
Hwang: What are the possibilities and limitations of mini-multilateral cooperation, for instance, between Korea-Japan-Australia-New Zealand?
Akutsu: It has often been pointed out that in Asia or the Asia-Pacific, the NATO type of multilateral cooperation would not work. However, I have some points to raise here. First, multilateral cooperation would be more successful if it were specifically issue-oriented. The newly born four-nation framework among Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan would work better if it was narrowed down to one or two specific areas or issues for cooperation such as maritime security, capacity-building aid, infrastructure construction aid, economic security and supply chains, cybersecurity and technological innovation. If such a grouping were to become comprehensive and cover many areas or issues for cooperation in the first place, it should separate those areas and issues into working groups. Second, however, the major limitation would be the absence of the US especially when deterrence fails and contingencies occur. If the US were not readily available in a contingency in this region, then the other partners have to work together until the US could spend more time and resources to deal with the contingency. Another limitation would be divergence of interests among US allies and partners stemming from different geographical locations. In my experience of imaginary policy simulations and wargames regarding multilateral security cooperation, some allies and partners tend not to take part in specific joint responses and actions in a contingency. This could happen in the real world in the future.
Song: Among Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, Japan and Australia are Quad members, and Korea and New Zealand are not. Therefore, there is a possibility of a new mini-multilateral cooperation, whether it can be realized or not depends on deciding which countries will exercise leadership, or whether they have sufficient mutual trust and common interests to work together. At this point, the strongest obstacle is that there is no leader for this cooperation yet. If Korea-Japan relations improve, there might be a possibility to drive such mini-multilateral cooperation.
Hwang: How did you evaluate President Yoon’s three-minute speech on North Korea?
Song: President Yoon pointed out that North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats are a major challenge not only to the Korean Peninsula but also to the international community’s peace. He appealed that the international community has to show and prove how much stronger its willingness to denuclearize North Korea is, than North Korea’s willingness to develop nuclear programs and missiles. It was a declaration of his North Korea policy to respond in solidarity with the international community against North Korea’s nuclear threat, and meant the perception that the international community’s willingness to denuclearize North Korea can also be a deterrence to North Korea.
Akutsu: As I already pointed out in response to your first question, President Yoon’s three-minute speech successfully stressed Korea’s commitment to achieving the denuclearization of North Korea. It is natural that NATO’s current concern is the ongoing situation in Ukraine, not the Korean Peninsula, so President Yoon’s speech was a very timely one. Furthermore, the strong message from the Korean Peninsula was persuasive at the right time at the right place. For this reason, too, President Yoon made the right decision to attend the NATO summit this time.
Hwang: Would these flows cause any conflict with China?
Akutsu: China has often negatively reacted to US-led or US-centered multilateralism or minilateralism as efforts to “contain China” or to establish “an Asian NATO,” and so on. Australia, New Zealand and Japan have already been criticized individually by China over issues concerning the Solomon Islands, Taiwan, and so on. Both Japan and Korea have already expressed concern about Taiwan in the context of the Japan-US alliance and the Korea-US alliance, respectively, so the possibility is not so low in terms of the way China views any grouping that involves Japan and, Korea especially outside the issues concerning North Korea.
Song: NATO pointed to China as a systemic challenge in its new strategic concept. However, President Yoon expressed only the basic principles of diplomacy that it is important to follow the universal values and norms, and that violations should be jointly condemned and sanctioned, and did not directly mention China. Prime Minister Kishida also only mentioned that changes in the status quo by force are not acceptable. China has indirectly checked the moves by saying that it will not neglect any situations that go against China’s interests. I would rather say that how Korea and China would manage the Korea-China strategic partnership is a more critical issue than interpreting whether these flows would cause conflicts with China.
Hwang: What are your suggestions to improve the overall Korea-Japan relations?
Akutsu: Since the question is about “overall relations,” let me put it in general terms. In my personal view, the bad part of the relations between Japan and Korea has tended to be caused by media emotionalism or sensationalism and political populism. When both media and politics emphasize the negative part of history and relations, both factors often interact to create inconvenient complexities. Once this process starts, things tend to go out of control. At the popular cultural level, the overall relations are positive, but this does not translate into politics. Even when political and diplomatic relations are relatively positive, sensationalism at the popular level often keeps them from moving forward. By now, it seems that only at the time of change of political leadership, to a degree, expectations for better relations rise in both media and politics. Now is such a time. So my suggestion is for both media and political leaders in both countries to maintain discipline, self-restraint and mutual respect. But in terms of Japan-US-Korea trilateral security cooperation, the current early phase is not necessarily negative, so I will keep my fingers crossed.
Song: Although the Korea-Japan Summit was not held during the NATO Summit, it could be understood that the two countries are taking a cautious approach to improve Korea-Japan relations. Furthermore, sufficient time is required to improve Korea-Japan relations. Fortunately, the leaders of Korea and Japan have confirmed that they will communicate closely after this opportunity, so I guess the speed of negotiations to resolve pending issues will accelerate. President Yoon insists that pending issues and the future can only be discussed when there is progress in resolving the issues from the past, therefore, both the past and future must be put on the table at the same time. It is necessary to advance the discussion on improving Korea-Japan relations by embodying a future-oriented vision on cooperation between Korea and Japan.
Hwang Jae-ho is a professor of the division of international studies at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. He is also the director of the Institute for Global Strategy and Cooperation. This discussion was assisted by researchers Ko Sung-hwah and Shin Eui-chan.