US-ROK-Japan Strategic Dialogue

July 23-24, 2014
Maui, Hawaii

Conference Report

The Pacific Forum CSIS, with the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, and with support from the Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering WMD (PASCC) and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), held a US-ROK-Japan Extended Deterrence Trilateral Dialogue on July 23-24, 2014. Forty-one US, ROK, and Japanese experts, officials, military officers, and observers, along with 17 Pacific Forum Young Leaders, attended in their private capacities.

Key findings include:

Security and foreign policy professionals in all three countries appreciate the importance of trilateral security cooperation, particularly to deal with a Korean Peninsula contingency. While all are dissatisfied with the current level and intensity of trilateral security cooperation, powerful political and emotional obstacles continue to hinder deeper cooperation.

The chief obstacle is ill will between Seoul and Tokyo. Trust and confidence are lacking. Even efforts to open official communication channels were faulted for being informative, not consultative.

The US stake in Northeast Asia obliges Washington to work to facilitate trilateral cooperation. Japanese and Koreans both agree that the US plays the key role in this effort and look to Washington to be more energetic. US efforts to facilitate communication are often seen as taking sides by one of the parties, however, and could prompt intensified “lobbying.” 

Exchanges in our meeting helped reduce misunderstanding and provided an information baseline for policies that was lacking. Nonetheless, Koreans remain apprehensive over Japan’s move toward exercising the right of collective self-defense and sought clarification of what it entails, to include the potential development of new offensive capabilities. Track-two and other non-governmental efforts can play an important role in providing clarification.

The most problematic deterrence challenges today concern “gray zone” provocations that, by definition, differ from thresholds of the past. Going forward, the North Korean “theory of victory” is likely to employ nuclear blackmail in combination with shows of strength and resolve to stop the US and its allies from using their superior capabilities in response to provocations. Japanese showed more concern than South Koreans about North Korean capabilities being able to “de-couple” the US from the region.

A looming concern beyond forging a coordinated response in a North Korean contingency is the gap in preferred diplomatic strategies between Tokyo and Seoul when it comes to dealing with regional security issues involving China.

Missile defense (MD) systems are critical elements of trilateral security cooperation. They do not guarantee absolute security but are effective tools that provide allies with partial protection, giving them critical advantages in war. At a minimum, the US, Japan, and South Korea need MD sensor integration. Interceptor integration is less critical.

The US currently does not have conventional prompt global strike capability (CPGS), which some see as a critical component to extended deterrence in Northeast Asia. Allies can develop their own conventional strike capabilities, filling this gap in alliance arrangements. Track-two can aid this process by producing authoritative needs assessments of MD and CPGS capabilities, and providing recommendations on appropriate trilateral responses.

In addition to substantive dialogue, participants took part in a two-stage table top exercise (TTX). Step one began with a North Korean sinking of a Japanese vessel amid increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Stage two included a US/Japan strike against a North Korean naval base, which was followed by a North Korean artillery barrage against an isolated South Korean farmland (with several civilian casualties) and a North Korean nuclear detonation over the Sea of Japan/East Sea (no casualties). TTX observations include:

During stage one, Japanese emphasized that Tokyo had no capability to strike North Korea to retaliate for the sinking of the Japanese naval vessel. They strongly insisted the US take action against North Korea on Japan’s behalf, stating that failure to do so would risk alliance credibility. Koreans urged caution out of concern for escalation on the Peninsula.

In step two, most Japanese were surprised by the strength and speed of the follow-on proposed US and ROK responses. All saw the North Korean nuclear demonstration as a signal or warning and not a military action per se. Americans and Koreans saw it as “nuclear blackmail” which demanded a strong response. Japanese were more cautious; they believed that they are uniquely exposed and vulnerable to a North Korean nuclear strike in a Northeast Asian contingency.

There was almost no attempt to communicate directly with North Korea throughout the simulation. At best China was used as a channel to Pyongyang. Participants felt they had little understanding of Kim Jung Un’s motivations and thinking. Neither was their agreement among participants about North Korean capabilities, nor how to assess them.

All participants felt there was a lack of clarity about the point at which deterrence of North Korea or the response to a provocation could evolve into an effort to bring about regime change and/or reunification of the Korean Peninsula. 

There was confusion about the amount of time a government could take to respond to an attack and still claim to exercise the right of self-defense.

The discussion appeared to undervalue the significance of the first use of a nuclear weapon and its impact on international rules and norms. The US response was at least partly driven by these considerations, however.

All participants worried about military action to which they were not a party and sought consultation and other mechanisms that could slow responses and prevent escalation that they had no control over. Japanese urged caution over expecting “automatic” support for combat operations on the Peninsula (beyond use of UN-designated bases); any Japanese Prime Minister would want to have a say, given the risks associated with direct Japanese involvement.

There were significant differences among participants about the definition and implications of “inaction.” Koreans assumed automatic retaliation to the artillery barrage against them. Americans seemed the most inclined to act against North Korea to dissuade it from escalating.

There was no agreement on what constituted the appropriate end state after step 2. There was consensus – but not unanimity – on removal of North Korea’s known nuclear arsenal and delivery systems as a condition for the end of hostilities.

Korean participants emphasized the economic impact of such a contingency on the ROK economy – and noted that they were the only group to worry about that dimension.

Korean participants asserted that the absence of a GSOMIA agreement would not hinder information exchanges with Japan during an emergency.

Korean participants emphasized the “dual tracks” throughout the exercise: the first track consisted of the particular provocation by North Korea and the second consisted of seeming preparations for war. Since most of the fighting and the majority of damage would occur on the Korean Peninsula, Koreans were understandably sensitive to and focused on the prospect of wider war. Nonetheless, they endorsed the need for immediate response to conventional attacks, even in a remote area, and saw the need for nuclear signaling by the US in step two.

There is a potential disconnect in US-ROK preferred responses to North Korea provocations. After Yeonpyongdo, Americans worried about on overly robust ROK response; the robust US response to the second step nuclear detonation seemed at cross-purposes with US concerns expressed in counter-provocation planning.

For more information, please contact Ralph A. Cossa at the Pacific Forum CSIS. These are preliminary findings aimed at providing a general summary of the discussion. They are the result of research supported by the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (PASCC). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of NPS or imply endorsement of the US government.