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Issues & Insights Vol. 17 – No. 4 – Young Leaders Analysis of the US-ROK-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue

Earlier this year, Pacific Forum Young Leaders were invited to observe a Table Top Exercise (TTX) held as part of the US-ROK-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue. The Young Leaders were subsequently divided into teams comprising one Korean, one Japanese, and one American (or NATO member nation) participant, and asked to offer their collected views on the ways the three nations could improve functional cooperation when dealing with a crisis including the DPRK. The five papers are contained within this document.
All five groups agree that the US, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) need to do more to co-ordinate their public messages. Though they note that increasing North Korean capabilities are driving the three countries closer together, they stress that each nation would experience and manage the threat of war differently during a crisis situation. They also highlight a lack of mutual trust amongst the two US allies – Japan and South Korea – as well as a sense of distrust in the United States’ commitment to its allies, in addition to its capability to effectively deter North Korea. As a result, they recommend a number of steps to increase alliance resolve in the face of DPRK provocations.
Without fail, the groups stress the importance of increased intelligence sharing, not only during a crisis involving North Korea, but also during ordinary circumstances. Each group notes the importance of Japan and Korea reaching agreement on the passage of a General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA)[1]. The groups also note that having signed a GSOMIA with more than 20 countries, the ROK’s failure to reach an agreement with Japan – a neighboring country that shares a common threat (North Korea) and a common ally (the United States) – is an abnormality. Their views underscore the importance of officials in Tokyo and Seoul investing political capital to bring about meaningful intelligence sharing.
Another recurring theme is the need to engage China during any crisis scenario, to avoid misperceptions and reduce tensions. The groups note that representatives from the US, ROK, and Japan tended to agree that China should remain ‘on the outskirts’ of a North Korean crisis. Yet they also draw attention to the fact that US participants in the TTX placed greater emphasis on consultation with China to signal the importance of the two core US objectives: removing the Kim regime and securing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). By contrast, they point out that South Korean delegates focused on signaling China their intention to execute a ‘self-defense’ retaliation plan, which included either establishing a peaceful regime or bringing about full reunification. The support younger Korean participants offered for unification during any military crisis  on the peninsula was striking, suggesting that generational change may not undermine support for unification, and may in fact intensify it.
Unification is also recurring theme. A number of the groups note that while the presence of Chinese troops in North Korea (presented in the latter half of the simulation) gave the United States delegation pause, it prompted a sense of urgency in the ROK to achieve objectives before China had the opportunity to intervene. As a result, the importance of continuing to seek dialogue with China with respect to a possible North Korean contingency, and to do so in concert, is frequently highlighted. At the same time, some of the groups stress the importance of trilateral discussions regarding the desirability of unification. They note that while ROK participants expressed their desire to achieve reunification by means of all-out war against North Korea, the US and Japanese delegations were less keen to make that a goal the central feature of their response.
One group focused on the importance of clarifying the timing of Noncombatant Evacuation Operations (NEO) duirng a crisis situation. The participants in that group note that “premature evacuation may stir needless confusion and fear among the public,” but also stress that “one must acknowledge that there is a point where NEO would be an appropriate response.” To resolve this dichotomy, they call for Seoul and Japan to work toward agreement on a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on when NEOs are justified.
Another group highlights the need to forge greater consensus on how to respond in a situation in which the DPRK has resorted to the use of nuclear arms. The participants of the group note that “[though] the US’s conventional counter-force capability is sufficient enough to neutralize the opponent’s second strike capability and deliver proportional retaliation, deterrent credibility in some ways dictates the necessity of a nuclear response.” They also stress that this issue was a point of contention throughout the TTX, demonstrating the importance of engaging in greater debate and discussion ahead of time to ensure a common position.
Several groups focused on the potential role for military action by Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) during a crisis situation. One group states that “Japan cannot strike the North Korea bases nor [conduct] offensive operations in the North Korean territory” without ROK consent, due to the obligations imposed by collective self-defense. At the same time, another group observes that “South Korean participants showed concern over possible JSDF military actions on and around the Korean Peninsula without proper consultation… or consent by the ROK.” These assessments underscore the importance of more consultations, so that common understandings can be established. They also suggest a greater role for military-to-military exchanges and exercises, such as the Pacific Dragon exercises held by US, ROK, and Japanese maritime forces in summer of 2016. Notably, one group highlights the fact that while trilateral exercises are important, only bilateral exercises between the ROK and Japan can succeed in closing gaps in understanding.
Finally, one group drew attention to the importance of domestic politics, noting that during any crisis situation, the political leaderships of all three countries would be pressured to act in certain ways, which may not be fully understood by the governments of the other two nations. Their implicit recommendation is that all three nations make a concerted effort to ensure that officials from the other two counties are fully conversant with the domestic political pressures within their countries. This is even more important given the significant political changes in both the United States and Republic of Korea since the TTX was held.


[1] A ROK-JAPAN GSOMIA was agreed in November 2016, after these papers were written.