Fourth US-ROK-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue

June 20-21, 2017
Maui, Hawaii

Conference Report

The Pacific Forum CSIS, with support from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the US Air Force Academy Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts on Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (AFA PASCC), brought 40 officials and experts from the United States, Japan, and the Republic of Korea (ROK), along with 20 Pacific Forum CSIS Young Leaders, all attending in their private capacity, to Maui, Hawaii, June 20-21, 2017 to explore their countries’ thinking about regional security, US extended deterrence, and ways to strengthen trilateral cooperation on deterrence and assurance in Northeast Asia. A two-move tabletop exercise (TTX) was conducted to address the threat of nuclear blackmail by Pyongyang. Key findings include:

Despite changes in administration in the United States and South Korea that have caused some anxiety, there is confidence in the sustainability and direction of both alliances and trilateral security cooperation.

While there is some apprehension as a result of government changes, there is a conviction that the security situation on the Korean Peninsula will constrain policy choices, especially in Seoul. A focal point for that government will be pursuit of “autonomy” within the US-ROK alliance. Japan worries about a downturn in relations with South Korea, particularly as a result of the “reopening” of the 2015 Comfort Women agreement, but assesses the situation as “cautious business as usual.”

Japanese and Korean participants voiced concern and anxiety about uncertainties introduced into US decision-making by the personality of the US president. They especially worry about the implications in crisis. While senior US officials (Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson) are saying the right things, there is concern that they may not fully reflect the president’s thinking and may be overruled (or out-tweeted).

US-Japan-ROK trilateral cooperation to deal with North Korea has increased in recent years. More progress is needed, however, and important political hurdles remain. As a result, emphasis should be laid on functional cooperation, which begins with stronger coordination between the two alliances and improved interoperability of forces.

The US should abandon rhetoric that calls a North Korean ICBM with a nuclear warhead a “strategic game-changer.” That characterization is inaccurate and prone to misinterpretation. Inaccurate, because the US has a long history of successfully extending security guarantees to allies to protect them against an adversary that can strike the US homeland with nuclear-tipped missiles. Prone to misinterpretation, because it drives allies to focus on potential decoupling from the US and because (US intentions to the contrary) it could embolden Pyongyang and provide incentive to more aggressively pursue this capability. Allies also voiced concern that articulation of a redline in this context would invite actions up to that threshold.

North Korea insists that it will not give up its nuclear arsenal. That poses a dilemma for the US: it must prepare (diplomatically and militarily) for dealing with a nuclear-armed adversary without indicating to allies (or Pyongyang) that it accepts North Korea’s nuclear status. While some form of arms control agreement may be concluded with North Korea, it is essential that the US and its allies do not give up – in words and deed – on the goal of denuclearization and that they continue to strengthen and adapt deterrence and defense concepts and capabilities.

There is support for increased attention and focus on the North Korean threat, but also concern that the US is sending too many signals to be accurately heard and assessed by regional allies and others. Strategy, like deterrence, works best when messages are clear, concise, and few. 

A small yet growing number of constituencies in South Korea and increasingly Japan call for forward deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) to the Peninsula. Deployment is generally viewed as a bargaining chip to pressure Pyongyang (via Beijing) to move toward denuclearization, not as tools for warfighting. Options to retake the (military and diplomatic) offensive on Pyongyang short of TNW deployment are many and under-explored; they should be unpacked and debated in alliance talks and at the trilateral level. 

South Koreans voiced support for their government’s strategy of proportional retaliation while Americans worried about the unilateral nature of that response. South Koreans were more worried about unilateral US actions, despite assurances that Washington would coordinate with Seoul prior to any military action, the one exception being an in-flight intercept of a missile heading toward US territory.

TTX Move 1

It is Sept 9. 2017, and there has been an unprecedented increase in cyber activity and intrusions or attempted intrusions into the US, South Korea, and Japan; national infrastructure information systems, financial institutions and large corporate entities have been hit especially hard. The DPRK has been developing military capabilities, claims to have mastered re-entry technology, and there is activity at its Punggye-ri nuclear test site; preparations for a launch of a long-range missile with a large payload at the Sohae launch site seem to be in final stages. North Korean TV reports that it has seized an unmanned underwater vehicle, there is a fire at Trump World in Yeouido, western Seoul (arson is suspected), and large networks in South Korea, the US, and Japan are paralyzed by malware and DDOS attacks. One hour ago, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test, which it claimed was a hydrogen device.

ROK participants said they could not make or openly support a pre-emptive strike against North Korea. They added that they would prefer the United States not to do so for fear of consequences for their country, but stressed they would support Washington if it did. 

US participants refused to launch a preemptive attack against the North Korean missile at this point in the scenario due to concerns about escalation and a counter-attack on Seoul. 

US participants, however, felt compelled to launch limited military strikes against North Korea as a result of the totality of low-level attacks against the US and its allies rather than any discrete incident. 

To reassure allied governments and publics, a visible sign of US reassurance – e.g. deployment of military assets to the region – is needed to respond to North Korean provocations.

There was little reaction to North Korea’s sixth nuclear test. The focus was on its aggressive behavior and how best to respond.

TTX Move 2

The US, in close coordination with the ROK and Japan, launched a Tomahawk missile attack that destroyed the Kim Il Sung statue in central Pyongyang, and warned that more cyber attacks would be met with “selective” kinetic responses against cyber-related facilities and personnel in North Korea. Pyongyang warned that it had put a nuclear warhead on a ICBM on the Sohae launch pad which it would launch at “the first sign of military action” by the US or its allies. Cyber attacks continued and are estimated to have resulted in 20-30 deaths. As the UN meets in late-night session in New York to discuss the unfolding crisis, there is an explosion on a ROK-held island in close proximity to the North. Ten ROK personnel are reported dead or missing. Pyongyang said that an enemy listening post was “neutralized” and warned that any retaliation would justify a preemptive nuclear response. Increased activity is noted at the Sohae launch site.

There was great sensitivity among US participants to allied concerns about consultation; in almost all matters, and especially in regard to China, the United States should not talk to or reach agreements with Beijing without ensuring that allies are informed of all such discussions.

Despite consensus among Japanese and Korean participants about the severity of the North Korea threat and the need for and desirability of cooperation (bilateral and trilateral), Koreans questioned Japan’s motives and stakes in a Korean Peninsula crisis. Koreans need a better understanding of Japanese concerns in a contingency and potential consequences (and costs) for Japan if/as it acts. Japanese were very concerned that they would be the targets of DPRK retaliation, particularly nuclear strikes, and sought assurance that US decision-makers would take their concern into account.

The messaging and packaging of responses to DPRK provocations – to signal determination as well as limited aims – is as important to allies as adversaries. Allies need a better understanding of the complexities and realities of retaliation, in particular the consequences. There are significant differences in opinion about what catalyzes escalation in a conflict.

The US and Japan have different assessments of the likely North Korean response to a limited preemptive strike. Americans believed that, with proper signaling, a strike against an ICBM on the launch pad would not generate a nuclear response from Pyongyang. Tokyo was not confident of this assessment and therefore favored a large preemptive strike against missile systems that threatened Japan to reduce that arsenal and increase the effectiveness of its defense systems.

The United States must navigate between requests from allies that demand opposite outcomes: The ROK is likely to want a limited response to minimize the risk of an attack (fearing entrapment) as Japan seeks a wider response to reduce the prospect of a follow-on attack by the DPRK (fearing abandonment). Pyongyang should be expected to exploit these differences.

It is critical that US and allied responses put the burden of escalation on North Korea and that they strip Pyongyang of the confidence that it can reap benefits from conducting provocations. 

Japan’s readiness to acknowledge a cyberattack as “an attack upon Japan” seems to lower the threshold for military response and speeds up Tokyo’s ability to engage more fully in a conflict. Japanese participants noted that this interpretation is consistent with a G7 statement on the severity of cyberattacks. More coordination and cooperation is needed between the three allies on ways to deal with cyberattacks.

The US team stressed that it was not only willing to respond to a North Korean nuclear threat posed by an ICBM, but was willing to react in the same way to a short- or medium-range missile with the same payload. Nonetheless, some Korean and Japanese participants worried about an “America first” response.

Americans and Japanese were surprised by the restraint exhibited by the South Korean team at this year’s exercise when it came to concerns about escalation and its desire for limited objectives, noting that it was a striking contrast with previous year’s performances.