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New Frontiers for Security Cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo (Occasional Paper 2101)

Among the first phone calls President Joe Biden made to foreign leaders after his election were to Japanese president Yoshihide Suga and South Korean president Moon Jae-in. His intent was to clarify America's desire to strengthen its security ties with both nations.

Besides quickly resolving existing agreements for basing US troops in each state, though, the question is how.

NPEC has been holding private workshops since early 2018 to get the answer. Attached is the result — a nine-chapter analysis of our alliance ties with Tokyo and Seoul that identiies six areas for increased security cooperation: 

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) 
  • 5G 
  • Reducing the vulnerability of civilian infrastructure to missile and drone strikes 
  • Anti-submarine warfare 
  • Competing with China’s One Belt One Road Initiative
  • Military space 

The specific recommendations for increasing cooperation in these areas are detailed in the report’s executive summary. Most of them have yet to be acted upon. The report lays out what to do. 


Feb 16, 2021
2101 New Frontiers Occasional Paper (PDF) 2,507.98 KB

New Frontiers for Security Cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo

Edited by Henry D. Sokolski 



This publication is the result of three years of workshops and collaboration with the National Defense University, the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), and with experts in the United States, South Korea and Japan. Charles Lutes, formerly with the WMD Center at the National Defense University lent the project a boost by hosting the first round of workshops with his Program for Emerging Leaders (PEL) participants early in 2018.

Several of these PEL fellows contributed to the workshops that followed and to the research in this volume. Bryan Port, who has extensive knowledge and insights from his military service in South Korea, was extremely helpful in guiding these discussions.

Once the working group completed most of its research, Steph Haggard of UCSD’s Korea-Pacific Center kindly offered to host a series of NPEC workshops. Covid prevented holding the events in person. His help is much appreciated as is his friendship.

Finally, this project’s workshops and research would not be possible without the generous support of the MacArthur Foundation, the Scaife Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.


Executive Summary and Policy Recommendations

With a new Democratic administration, Washington is almost certain to moderate its demands that Japan and South Korea pay more for American forces on their soil. This should ease tensions with Seoul to Tokyo. To strengthen security relations with Japan and South Korea, though, more will be required.

Rather than simply increase their conventional military deployments, Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo will need to collaborate in new ways to enhance allied security. This will entail working more closely on new military frontiers, such as enhancing allied command of outer and cyber space as well as in underwater warfare. Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo will also want to carve out new functional areas of cooperation to make existing energy sources more secure, communications more reliable, data sharing easier and safer, and allied economic assistance to developing nations in strategic zones more effective.

Enhanced collaboration in each of these areas has begun but is not yet locked in or fully institutionalized. It should be. Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo need one another to deal with China and North Korea. Yet, how each currently strategically views Beijing and Pyongyang differs. Nor is America’s preferred military approach to deterring Chinese and North Korean adventurism — by preventing Beijing and Pyongyang from projecting military strikes against their neighbors — all that easy to achieve.

Adding new, more tractable items to America’s Asian security alliance agenda won’t immediately eliminate these misalignments. But it will strengthen the security ties they have as liberal democracies — bonds Beijing and Pyongyang are straining to fray.

As both Zack Cooper of the American Enterprise Institute and Richard Samuels and Eric Heginbotham of MIT note in their essays, the most basic security challenge Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington faces is China. The United States certainly wants to deter Chinese adventurism. Japan shares this objective too but, given its proximity to Beijing and its trade with it, Tokyo has far more to risk militarily and economically than the United States if relations with Beijing sour. South Korea, which is geographically and economically even closer to China, is preoccupied with its relationship with the North, seeking to promote an ambitious political and economic North-South agenda. It also, like China, is obsessed with settling historical scores with its one-time occupier — Japan.

So, while Japan and Seoul both want to deter North Korea, their approaches differ. While South Korean President Moon favors accommodating Pyongyang over actively defending against it, Japan’s approach is nearly the opposite. This draws Seoul closer to Beijing’s orbit and pushes Tokyo further away.

Unfortunately, political legitimacy in China, South Korea, and North Korea still depends all too much on focusing on Japan’s failure to atone fully for its war crimes. For South Korea this “soft” conflict has hard military consequences: To the extent Seoul focuses on making military investments, these are frequently colored by a desire to operate more freely of Washington’s command and to equal or outmatch, not just North Korea, but Japan.

This is unhelpful. Washington’s most popular current military strategy — deterring China and North Korea by denying them the means to sustain military attacks against its neighbors — is demanding. By one calculation, targeting just 40 Chinese airfields requires nearly 600 accurate conventional missiles (and by last count, China had at least 235 airfields and North Korea 80 or more).

Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea, which lack robust missile defenses, are all well within range of China’s short to intermediate-range surface-to-surface missile arsenal, which currently consists of more than 3,000 ballistic and cruise missiles. Multiply these numbers by how many weapons are needed to neutralize other Chinese and North Korean military assets and the number of munitions needed to support America’s strategy of deterrence by denial, climbs exponentially.

It would be comforting if Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul were able to amass such an arsenal and could agree on how to use it. This, however, will take time. Until then, additional forms of deterrence may be needed. Developing additional strategies, as with mending Japanese-Korean relations, will be challenging. Fortunately, the threats from China and North Korea are real, growing, and large enough to keep the United States, Japan, and Seoul focused on these problems long enough to solve them.

To maintain this focus and keep Seoul and Tokyo from going their own way (by acquiring nuclear deterrents of their own), the United States, South Korea, and Japan will want to broaden their concept of mutual defense beyond the contentious metric of military spending. More of the later, of course, is needed but what is at least as important is that America, Japan, and South Korea collaborate on new forms of security, forms that make it clear to Beijing and Pyongyang that the ties that bind Washington to Seoul and Tokyo are growing and are stronger than any force Beijing or Pyongyang can devise to tear them apart.

What might these new forms of security cooperation be? NPEC held a battery of workshops to find out. These gatherings, held over three years, drew ideas from early and mid-career officers and staff from the military, Pentagon, Intelligence Community, State, Energy, Commerce, and the Senate and the House. In addition, senior retired officials, and outside government advisers contributed. The workshops focused on six specific areas for increased alliance cooperation:

  1. Artificial intelligence (AI)
  2. 5-G
  3. Reducing civilian “value” targets’ vulnerability to missiles and drones
  4. Anti-submarine warfare
  5. Competing against China’s One Belt One Road initiative
  6. Military space

To continue reading, click here.

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
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