ICAS Special Contribution

No. 2003-0305-RxL

Japan as the ‘New South Korea’?

Robyn Lim

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Robyn Lim

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission to ICAS of Robyn Lim. This paper was originally delivered on March 5, 2003, Tokyo, at the U S-Japan Alliance Seminar, hosted by Japan Center for Global Partnership. sjk]

Japan as the ‘New South Korea’?

Robyn Lim

Professor of International Relations
Nanzan University, Nagoya

The US-South Korea alliance is defunct. Can America now count on Japan to become the ‘new South Korea’, thus filling the role that the ROK has played since 1950 as America’s main point of influence on China? If the answer is yes, America has much to offer Japan, including providing for its nuclear security and defense against ballistic missiles. If the answer is no, America’s position will become much more difficult. But so will Japan’s.

The Cold War ice has finally melted around the Korean peninsula, historically the vortex of great power rivalry. 1 That’s partly as a consequence of economic changes since the end of the Cold War. Burgeoning economic ties between China and South Korea have encouraged Seoul to look to Beijing rather than Washington as its protector. 2 Moreover, as a consequence of Kim Dae Jung’s naïve ‘sunshine policy’, many South Koreans now see America as an impediment to the reunification of the Korean peninsula. Events are moving fast, not least because Kim Jong Il is provoking a crisis in order to deter the United States from removing him from power after it has invaded Iraq to overthrow the regime there.

North Korea is using Leninist tactics -- seeking to force others to debate on its terms by taking an extreme position. On an almost daily basis it is raising the stakes, including by resuming the reprocessing of plutonium at the nuclear facility in Yongbyon, and threatening war if the UN Security Council imposes sanctions. North Korea presumably knows that it cannot win a war. But it could make a mess of Seoul by means of rocket and artillery attack. Thus the North holds the South Korean capital hostage.

So far, North Korea’s strategy has been effective. Kim Jong Il is skilful at playing from a weak hand. The expectation has quickly developed that the United States should give ground, even though North Korea is in breach of a raft of international agreements. Many now seem to think that it is up to the ROK and Japan to find a face - saving formula for America to talk to North Korea on its terms. They forget that the global balance has shifted decisively in America’s favour and that the United States consequently has much wider strategic choices.

The United States is now Gulliver Untied, enjoying much greater strategic latitude than it did during the Cold War. America must now re-think the premises upon which it has based its East Asian strategy ever since Stalin brought the Cold War to East Asia in 1950 when he gave North Korea the green light to invade the South. The vital US interest is the maintenance of a balance of power on the opposite shore of the Pacific Ocean. There is no vital US interest in any particular configuration of the East Asian quadrilateral (US, China, Russia, Japan) that assembled in 1905. The quadrilateral has fluctuated greatly over time, and can be expected to continue to do so.

The only vital American interest on the Korean peninsula is that North Korea should not be allowed to threaten the US homeland with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, and that it should not be permitted to sell such weapons. The strategic security of Japan -- the key interest which led the US to intervene in the Korean war -- is no longer a vital interest of the United States. 3

Japan is not as important to the United States as it was during the Cold War, or as many Japanese think that it is. Times have changed. During the Cold War, access to bases in Japan was vital for US global strategy. That was because American maritime power and nuclear weapons were essential in countering the Soviet bid for hegemony over Eurasia made on the basis of proximity. 4 American access to bases in Japan, targeting the vulnerable Soviet Far East, meant that the United States could present Moscow with a credible threat of two front war. But the end of the Cold War means that Japan is less important as an ally, even though access to bases here --especially on Okinawa -- is still useful to the US because they can be used for regional contingencies. But ‘useful’ is not ‘vital’.

Iraq and North Korea

But it is a vital interest of the United States, especially since 9/11, that aggressive regimes should not be permitted to develop weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivery. The lesson of Iraq is that it is much harder to deal with rogue regimes once they have acquired such weapons. In relation to Iraq and North Korea, the mission is the same -- removal of the regime. But the means of achieving the policy goal must be different because circumstances are not the same.

The key difference is that the US can deal with Iraq, if necessary, on the basis of its own resources, but it cannot do so in relation to North Korea. That’s because America has wobbly allies, and because it cannot ignore the interests of China. China is North Korea’s neighbour, a nuclear-armed great power, and is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Thus North Korea is a tougher target, and that’s why it must be Iraq first. Those who say that the United States must put North Korea first are usually those who don’t want to lift a finger in either place. 5

Thus US interests are served by invading Iraq, but by removing American ground forces from South Korea -- preferably at a time and in a manner of America’s choosing. Keeping forces there inhibits the United States from pursuing the hostile policy towards Pyongyang which will be necessary to bring down the regime once the US has dealt with Iraq. That might well involve a strike on the Yongbyon reactor. It will certainly require sanctions, as well as maritime interdiction of North Korean missile exports.

Because the US-ROK alliance is now defunct, US ground forces in South Korea have become hostages to North Korea. The writing was on the wall when Kim Dae Jung refused to send even token forces to the US-led war in Afghanistan, saying it was ‘too dangerous’. No alliance can endure when the perception of common threat has dissolved, along with willingness to share risk in pursuit of shared goals.

Last December, South Koreans elected a viscerally anti American president, Roh Moo Hyun who said during the election campaign that if war broke out between North Korea and the United States, South Korea would remain neutral. Indeed, the more North Korea ratchets up the pressure, the more South Korea remains bent on appeasement -- including the folly of de-mining the rail and road links across the DMZ that could provide an invasion corridor for the North. 6 Pyongyang is in blatant breach of its international agreements, but the South Korean government resisted US pressure to take the issue to the Security Council. Seoul is thus providing the North with endless opportunities to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. Indeed, even as North Korea becomes daily more bellicose, South Korea accuses the United States of an ‘emotional’ response, and has even denied that the North has developed nuclear weapons.

The lessons of Europe in the 1930s remain unlearned in Seoul. Indeed, a misreading of the Vietnam war seems to dominate thinking there. Many in the current and incoming ROK government, much influenced by the ideas of the so-called ‘Concerned Asian scholars’ of the Vietnam era, seem to think that the United States is an imperial power. To the contrary, the United States will not leave its forces where they are no longer welcome. Of course, those governments who invite Uncle Sam to leave must live with the consequence, as the Filipinos discovered. 7

For South Korea, the prospect of a US withdrawal is already on the table. In early February, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld apparently told Chyung Dai Chul, the emissary of President-elect Roh, that the United States does not keep its forces in places where they are not welcome. 8

A US withdrawal from South Korea would remind the other players that the United States has much wider options than it had during the Cold War. It would force them to define their interests. In fact, by doing and saying as little as possible right now in response to North Korea’s clamouring for attention, the United States is putting the East Asian players on the spot. Let’s look briefly at how we got to this point.


The East Asian quadrilateral was subsumed under the overlay of the Cold War, although it never disappeared. Now it has resurfaced with a vengeance, albeit on the basis of different configurations of strategic interest.

Milestones included the end of the Cold War, which made Russia the weakest member of the quadrilateral after it lost the ability to intimidate the others. (The power of the unlamented Soviet Union in the international system rested essentially on its formidable armed forces and hence its ability to intimidate others.) Now Russia is little more than an interested onlooker, even though Putin is playing cleverly from a weak hand. China’s decision to pursue capitalism was a further milestone. Anxious to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, China sought to enhance its wealth and power by engagement with the capitalist world, without giving up Leninist party control. Also of critical importance has been the ROK’s economic ascendancy over North Korea, which made South Korea an attractive partner for China. Seoul now enjoys better relations with China and maybe Russia than does Pyongyang.

North Korea, orphaned by the end of the Cold War, was no longer able to play off Russia and China to its own benefit. Moreover, it was incapable of reform along the Chinese model. 9 So, like Saddam Hussein, the North responded to its growing isolation by developing missiles and weapons of mass destruction. These it has used with great success to intimidate and blackmail others, even while massive policy failures led to famine.

For its part, Seoul -- guided by the German example -- fears the costs of reunification. Kim Dae Jung’s ‘sunshine policy’ has lulled many South Koreans into thinking that war is unthinkable. With seventy per cent of South Koreans using the internet, they seem to think, how could something as ‘old-fashioned’ as war possibly be on the horizon? Worse, we now know that South Korea paid the North two hundred million dollars, siphoned through Hyundai, as a sweetener for the so-called historic summit in the summer of 2000. Last year, the South Koreans drew back from putting out a defense white paper which named North Korea as the main enemy -- even after a midyear naval clash provoked by the North which killed five South Korean sailors.

In promoting his ‘sunshine policy’, Kim Dae Jung draws false analogies with the reunification of Germany. South Koreans are mistaken if that think that German reunification was brought about by gradual rapprochement between the two Germanys. To the contrary, Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik played into Moscow’s hands, thus delaying the winning of the Cold War. 10 It was only after President Reagan came to power determined to reverse these dangerous trends that the Soviet regime was brought down. It was the winning of the Cold War that made German reunification possible -- on the basis of Germany’s entry into NATO. That of course represented utter defeat for Moscow.

Moreover, the ‘sunshine policy’ has fed a Korean nationalism which is both anti American and anti-Japanese. There was an outburst of anti-American nationalism after an accident involving US servicemen in which two South Korean schoolgirls were killed. And one of the things that unites Koreans on both sides of the DMZ is hatred of Japan. 11 The territorial dispute over the Takeshima/Tokdo islands in the Tsushima Strait remains unresolved, and there is always the potential that a South Korean president will use this issue to gain domestic support, as President Kim Young Sam did. There is nothing in President- elect Roh’s background to suggest that he is well disposed towards Japan. Unlike President Kim Dae Jung and other older leaders, he does not speak Japanese. All this gives North Korea myriad opportunities to drive wedges between South Korea and Japan.

And Japan does little to help itself because (unlike Germany) it has been unable to settle the issues of the second world war on terms acceptable to its neighbours. Relations with South Korea had been improving rapidly, thanks largely to Kim Dae Jung, until Japan authorized a revisionist textbook which provoked widespread complaint in South Korea. It also provided common cause between China and South Korea. All that Japan has to do to solve this problem is for its education ministry to get out of the textbook vetting business. But as so often happens in Japan, vested interests trump national interest. Moreover, Koizumi, playing to the nationalist gallery at home, gives Kim Jong Il a free kick every time he visits the Yasukuni shrine. All politics might be local, as Tip O’Neill used to say. But Japan’s behaviour is all too redolent of a country that has not had to think seriously about its security for fifty years.


In relation to enduring US interests in East Asia, China is the critical issue. That’s because China occupies the central geographical position in the region, is by far the most populous country, and because it is an economically successful rising power. 12 It was greatly in America’s interest that China decided to pursue capitalism in order to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union. Because America does not want bad relations with China that could lead to war, it needs to develop incentives to which China can respond.

China is enjoying much greater strategic latitude as a consequence of the end of the Cold War -- which meant that China was no longer tied down by the Soviet Union and its allies. The success of the South Korean economy, contrasting with the massive failure of the still- Stalinist North, has also made South Korea economically vital to China. China recognised South Korea in 1992, two years after Russia had done so. (The ROK abandoned Taiwan in the process. That was a big plus for China, given the linkages between the Taiwan and South Korea issues during the Cold War.) 13

In relation to the Koreas, China’s vital interest is to exercise maximum influence over the process of reunification. It’s no secret that China wants to see the Korean peninsula revert to its traditional role as Chinese vassal. The last thing China wants to see is a strong and independent state on its north eastern frontier, any more than it has wanted a strong and independent Vietnam on its southern borders. A reunited Korea with nuclear weapons is an even less welcome prospect for Beijing -- not least because that might set Japan on the path to acquiring its own nuclear weapons.

Thus China prefers the status quo. Still, North Korea is a troublesome ally. China cannot control Pyongyang, which often acts in ways contrary to China’s interests, especially in relation to Japan. In 1998, for example, North Korea’s launch of a long-range Taepodong missile over the Japanese islands prompted Japan to develop its own surveillance satellites, and to join with the United States in research into missile defences. Yet China has abetted Pakistan’s help for North Korea’s uranium enrichment program, and provides vital support for the regime in Pyongyang via its aid and supplies of energy. One important reason for propping up the regime is that China fears a massive refugee outflow into Manchuria, China’s rustbelt, where social tensions are running high as unemployment rises. Moreover, it is likely that divisions over Korea policy are feeding into the power struggle in Beijing.

American and Chinese interests on the Korean peninsula are broadly congruent, in that neither wants to see another Korean war, and neither wants a nuclear-armed Japan. The problem is that China has wider ambitions than the Korean peninsula, and seeks unfettered dominance in East Asia. That is something the United States is bound to oppose. And from America’s perspective, the worst thing that China does is to encourage proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction, especially to North Korea. Thus, while offering China incentives for good behavior, America also needs large reserves of military and economic power in order to restrain China -- including in relation to Taiwan. That’s where Japan comes in.

Japan as the ‘new South Korea’?

The US alliance with Japan gives America geostrategic leverage over China because Japan provides the United States with naval and air bases which can be used for wider regional purposes. In return, America provides for Japan’s long range maritime and nuclear security. But Japan has not been required to undertake much risk or to make hard choices. Japan must now become a real ally, or face the risk of abandonment that was never present during the Cold War.

So far the signs are that Japan is moving in the right direction. It sent one of its state of the art Aegis destroyers to the Gulf, in rear support of the US war in Afghanistan. It’s unlikely that such support will be withdrawn once the war starts in Iraq. Indeed, the Cabinet Legislative Bureau, guardian of the interpretation of the Constitution, has said that refueling US and other warships attacking Iraq would not violate the ban on collective self defence.

Japan also seems likely to participate with the United States in the development of missile defences. The fact that North Korea possesses some one hundred Nodong missiles capable of targeting Japan is concentrating minds in Tokyo. So is the prospect of another launch of North Korea’s Taepodong longer range missile, which was tested over the Japanese islands in 1998. Moreover, it seems that Japan will agree to the future homeporting in Yokosuka of a US nuclear powered aircraft carrier, since America is running out of conventionally powered carriers.

But Japan still doesn’t seem to know what it wants. Moreover, strong unilateralist undercurrents are visible just below the surface. Most notable of these recently was Koizumi’s Pyongang gambit last September, which he presented to Washington as a fait accompli. Playing to a domestic audience in seeking the return of Japanese kidnapped by North Korea , Koizumi held an ‘historic summit’ with Kim Jong Il. (One wonders how much was secretly paid for that ‘breakthrough’.) 14 Koizumi discounted US proliferation concerns, even though senior US officials were virtually shouting these from the rafters. Indeed, it was fortunate that the ‘Dear Leader’ miscalculated when he failed to keep alive enough of the kidnapped Japanese for use as future pawns. If he had not so miscalculated, the US-Japan alliance might well be in as much of a crisis today as is the US-South Korea alliance.

And as recently as last January, even after North Korea had announced its intention to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Koizumi was apparently willing to dicker in Khabarovsk with the Dear Leader’s emissaries -- thus giving North Korea yet another opportunity to drive a wedge between Japan and the United States. 15 Were the proposed sweeteners deemed insufficient by the Dear Leader? 16

The time is not far off when Japan will be put to the test. Uncle Sam means business. No one should be fooled by the apparent soft line that America is currently taking in relation to North Korea. This is merely tactical, to avoid the risk of two front war. Once Iraq is off the griddle, the US will be asking its allies to enforce sanctions on North Korea and to help interdict North Korean exports of missiles and missile parts. China will also be on the spot, faced with the prospect of a US strike, possibly with nuclear weapons, near its Manchurian frontier. If the Chinese were to conclude that North Korea is now more of a liability than an asset, they might save us all a lot of trouble by fomenting a coup in Pyongyang. 17

But it would be a bad idea for the United States to threaten China with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan. 18 No threat will work unless it is credible. The Chinese know that the prospect of a nuclear armed Japan is as unwelcome in Washington as it is in Beijing. Moreover, if the United States were seen to be encouraging Japan to develop nuclear weapons, that would set alarm bells ringing in the capitals of America’s other allies, and could lead to rapid nuclear proliferation. It has not been the Non Proliferation Treaty which has prevented a nuclear breakout in East Asia, as many in the arms control fraternity fondly imagine. Rather, US allies have been reassured because of the ‘dual function’ of the US-Japan alliance in both protecting Japan and cocooning Japanese power. If that were to change, such allies would be scrambling to ensure their security, whatever it took. 19

More broadly, if Japan is unwilling to play the part of the ‘new South Korea’, the United States must find other ways to secure its vital interest in maintaining a balance of power on the opposite shore of the Pacific Ocean. America has broad, enduring security interests to protect. It is now up to the United States to remind others that the Cold War is over, and that America is as free as anyone else to seek change in order to further its interests.

For example, America could choose to balance power from offshore. It could play off China and Japan, the two great powers of East Asia, in the ‘Perfidious Albion’ style that Britain perfected in its four hundred years as offshore balancer in Europe. This was a realpolitik US administration before 9/11, and it is even more so now. 20

Thus for Japan, the risk of abandonment is now on the horizon, albeit distantly. For the United States, changes in technology will foster the attraction of neo-isolationism. It cannot escape notice in Tokyo that the United States can ‘do’ missile defence without Japan if necessary. America will not tolerate free riding allies now the Cold War is over. 21 Indeed, feckless allies such as Germany risk feeding the very US unilateralism and neo- isolationism that they most fear.

Japan, as an archipelago barely offshore from the East Asian littoral, serves its security interests best when allied with the dominant maritime power. That provides Japan with optimal security, as was the case from 1902 to 1921, and has been again since 1951. Indeed, the US alliance still has much to offer Japan, in terms of nuclear and long range maritime security, as well as missile defence.

But if Japan wishes to remain a US ally, it will have to pay much higher premiums. The looming crisis on the Korean peninsula means that the Japanese can no longer ignore the facts of their strategic geography.


1 In geostrategic terms, the Korean peninsula is a dependency of Manchuria. After the expanding Russian and Japanese empires started to clash in Manchuria in the late nineteenth century, there were ten great power wars fought over Manchuria-Korea, the last of which was the 1950-53 Korean war. See Robyn Lim, The Geopolitics of East Asia: The Search for Equilibrium (London: Routedge-Curzon, forthcoming).
2 That came to public attention first in August 1999, when South Korean defence minister Cho Song Tae visited Beijing. In a lecture to China’s National Defense University, Cho said that the following Korean reunification, the disposition of US forces ‘shall be decided by unanimous agreement among Northeast Asian countries’. In other words, China would have a veto.
3 In intervening in Korea, the US was also keen to show its Western European allies that Stalin would not be allowed to pick them off one by one. They were especially nervous because the USSR had just ended the American nuclear monopoly.
4 Germany was always the locus of conflict, the key Soviet objective being the achievement of a neutralised reunified Germany that it could control by virtue of proximity.
5 See, for example, Warren M. Christopher, ‘North Korea is more urgent’, International Herald Tribune, 1 January 2003.
6 It’s hard to think of an example of similar folly. Perhaps the example of Poland comes closest, when the Poles took part in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in early 1939, when it should have been obvious that they were next on Hitler’s menu. Will the South Korean military remain in the barracks while this folly continues?
7 In 1991, the Philippine senate voted that it would not accept the presence of US nuclear capable ships in its ports, and the US subsequently withdrew from its bases in the Philippines. By 1995, the Filipinos discovered that China had lodged on Mischief Reef in the Spratly archipelago, a reef which the Philippines also claims, and is well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.
8 ‘S. Korea discounts talk of U.S. troop pullout’, The Korea Herald, 8 February 2003.
9 One reason that North Korea seems incapable of Chinese-style reforms is that Kim Jong Il, a pudgy playboy, lacks the cachet with the military enjoyed by Deng Xiaoping as a Long March veteran. Thus Deng was able to insist that military modernization be relegated to the last of China’s four modernizations.
10 Ostpolitik was a capitulationist policy that had its roots in President Kennedy’s supine response to East Germany’s construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. At the time, Willy Brandt was mayor of West Berlin. By the mid 1970s, with America paralysed by Vietnam and the Watergate scandal that destroyed the Nixon presidency, the Soviet Union was going for broke, and American allies were wobbling all over the globe.
11 On 1 March, North Korean ‘church’ and other groups will join Southern NGOs in Seoul for the first time to mark 1 March, a public holiday in both countries which marks the 1919 uprising against Japanese rule. By permitting the visit, South Korea is condoning yet another Pyongyang wedge-driving exercise.
12 That is not to assume, of course, that China’s growth rates will continue indefinitely at their current levels. Or to ignore the problems of China’s banks, which may be in worse shape even than Japan’s.
13 For example, Mao was poised to invade Taiwan in mid 1950, and had been tacitly given a green light by the US. But when the Korean War broke out, President Truman sent the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait, both to forestall Mao’s invasion and to prevent Chiang Kai-shek from raiding the China coast and thus widening the war.
14 According to Japan Today, on the eve of the summit, the Japanese government paid 325.6 billion yen to save the ailing North Korean credit union Chogin Kinki. At the end of December, it paid another 410 billion yen of public money to salvage another bankrupt North Korean credit union, Chogin Kanto. ‘Why is Koizumi going to Khabarovsk’, Japan Today, 8 January 2003. To my knowledge, none of this appeared in the Japanese media.
15 ‘Rumor mill: despite official denials, it’s whispered that Koizumi will meet with the North Koreans while he’s in Russia’, The Asashi Shimbun, 28-29 December 2002; ‘Why is Koizumi going to Khabarovsk?’, Japan Today, 8 January 2003. Kim Jong Il was born near Khabarovsk, and visited Putin there in August 2002.
16 Kim Jong Il recently refused to meet Lim Dong Won, the architect of the Sunshine Policy, apparently because the bribe was deemed inadequate. That should stand as a reminder that the regime in Pyongyang is not only Stalinist, but criminal.
17 The relationship between China and North Korea is a black box. Still, given history and geography, it would be surprising if China lacked assets in the North Korean military. And that pudgy playboy Kim Jong Il does not enjoy his father’s cachet with the military. Nor presumably does his twenty year old second son, whom he is now grooming for the succession.
18 Cf. Charles Krauthammer, ‘The Japan Card’, The Washington Post, 3 January 2003. Other American allies, including Australia, would not react with equanimity at the prospect of a nuclear-armed Japan. Indeed, there was considerable alarm around the region in 1993-4 when Japan seemed to be dragging the chain on the permanent extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
19 Australia’s promotion of the 1996 Canberra Commission, which urged the abolition of nuclear weapons, was an exercise in having its cake and eating it, much as Japan has done. The policy was put in place because of widespread public opposition to French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. But the last thing Australia really wants is to see the US abandon its nuclear arsenal.
20 See Bob Woodward, Bush at War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002).
21 NATO will be put to the test in the coming war with Iraq. NATO’s underlying problem is that victory is always the solvent of alliances. So what security function does NATO now have? Moreover, the problem with all collective security arrangements is that its members must all be willing to go to war if necessary in order to preserve the peace. Free-riders cannot be tolerated. But these NATO members are all democracies whose publics don’t war war at any price. Their publics do not seem to understand that the costs of leaving Saddam Hussein in place are likely to be far greater than the costs and risks of leaving him in situ. Thus in Europe as well as in South Korea, the lessons of the 1930s remain unlearned, while the so-called lessons of Vietnam have been overlearned.

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