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The North Asia Security Split

Author: Carolyn M. Leddy, International Affairs Fellow in Japan, Sponsored by Hitachi, Ltd. 2009-2010
January 21, 2010
Wall Street Journal

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Asia marks two important anniversaries this year: the 50th anniversary of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty and 60 years since the beginning of the Korean War. That makes this an opportune time to examine just how divergent security policy in Tokyo and Seoul has become.

The global economic downturn and competing domestic priorities have left both capitals facing budget constraints. But budget austerity measures have not deterred South Korea from maintaining its commitment to its National Defense Reform 2020 plan, put in place in 2005 and revised last year by President Lee Myung-bak to enhance military capabilities, improve efficiency and build a military force prepared to meet 21st-century global challenges. Meanwhile, Japan's National Defense Program Guidelines-its basic security policy outline which is updated every five years, and due to be completed last December-have been delayed until the end of 2010. Yet the new Democratic Party of Japan-led government still felt safe enough to cut the defense budget for an eighth consecutive year.

There are stark differences between Seoul and Tokyo's approaches to defense infrastructure, too. The former exported nearly $1.2 billion dollars in defense equipment last year and is on target to meet its goal of becoming a top 10 global exporter of defense equipment in 2012. By contrast, conditions in Japan's defense industry remain bleak: The industry is shrinking rapidly because of decreased domestic demand, and the situation is unlikely to improve as long as Japan's self-imposed Cold War-era arms export ban remains. Japanese Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa suggested reviewing Japan's primitive policy on arms exports last Tuesday. But Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama quickly rebuked him for being "loose-tongued," and reaffirmed that the ban would remain in place.

The variance in approaches to international diplomacy, particularly Afghanistan, is noteworthy too. Last Friday Japan's refueling mission in support of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan expired. Rather than continue the logistical support, the Japanese government pledged $5 billion in financial assistance to the country over the next five years. This financial commitment is significant, but it will be of limited benefit if the security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious for aid workers. There is a growing sense that Tokyo's financial commitment in lieu of boots-on-the-ground indicates a Japanese retreat to the 1990s era of "checkbook diplomacy." While it remains to be seen whether this assessment is merited, Japan's Afghanistan policy suggests Tokyo is inclined to resist robust international engagement in the coming years.

The situation is markedly different in Seoul, where President Lee has eagerly embraced a leadership role for South Korea in world affairs. In his New Year's address, President Lee highlighted "global diplomacy" as one of the three main pillars of his government's agenda for 2010. And South Korea is moving to fulfill this vision by undertaking a substantive role in Afghanistan, where it plans to send a 360-member combined civilian and military Provincial Reconstruction Team this summer. The Lee government has made the courageous decision to re-engage directly in Afghanistan only two years after the previous government withdrew South Korean forces following the killing of two nationals by the Taliban.

The two countries' alliance relationships with the United States are also sharply diverging. President Lee boasted recently that ties with the U.S. are "stronger than ever." And South Korea is working to demonstrate the strength of this partnership, including through active efforts to assume wartime control of its troops on the Korean peninsula from the U.S. in 2012. During his October 2009 visit to Seoul, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates praised Seoul's efforts to transform its military and heralded the growing "active strategic partnership" between the two partners.

The U.S. and Japan use similarly upbeat rhetoric to describe their alliance, but there's little to show for it. The biggest rift in the relationship is the dispute over the U.S. Marine Corps base on Okinawa, which has become a major domestic political issue in Japan. Rather than honor a commitment on troop relocation that took over a decade to negotiate, the DPJ-led government wants to ditch it and start over again. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama marked the 50th anniversary of the alliance by promising to mend the rift by "year-end." The clock is ticking.

In the year of the tiger, Seoul is proudly displaying its stripes in Asia and around the world. In contrast, Japan appears to be cowering like a wounded tiger cub, unsure of its global role and the benefits of aligning itself with the world's most powerful democracy-which has guaranteed its security for over half a century. The stability and security of both countries-and North Asia as a whole-depends on Seoul's courage and Tokyo's ability to overcome its cowardice. Stay tuned.

Ms. Leddy, a Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Ltd. international affairs fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Japan, was director for counterproliferation strategy at the U.S. National Security Council from 2006 to 2007.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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