By Song Sang-ho
SINGAPORE, June 12 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's growing nuclear and missile threats appear to be creating fresh momentum for South Korea, the United States and Japan to rev up their security cooperation long hamstrung by history-related feuds between Seoul and Tokyo, analysts said Sunday.
The mood was on full display when Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup and his U.S. and Japanese counterparts, Lloyd Austin and Nobuo Kishi, agreed to hold tripartite military exercises, including missile warning drills, on a consistent basis during their talks in Singapore on Saturday.
The agreement came amid increased tensions caused by the North's recent ballistic missile launches and its reported preparations for a nuclear test. The North's leader Kim Jong-un reaffirmed his regime's principle of "power for power and head-on contest" during a key ruling party session last week.
Making his debut on the global stage as the South's top defense official, Lee emphasized Seoul's commitment to trilateral security cooperation.
"We seek to strengthen South Korea-U.S-Japan trilateral security cooperation to respond to North Korea's nuclear and missile threats," he said during a session of the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual regional premier defense dialogue, on Sunday.
Gathering here on the sidelines of the forum the previous day, Lee, Austin and Kishi threw their weight behind the trilateral missile warning and ballistic missile search and tracking exercises, which have been held every quarter and biennially, respectively, or at irregular intervals.
Over the past few years, the trio have staged the drills relatively in a low-key manner, a move seen as part of efforts to back efforts to engage the recalcitrant regime in dialogue.
However, those exercises are expected to take place more publicly with greater consistency.
Seoul, Washington and Tokyo will also likely discuss the resumption of other joint exercises, such as anti-submarine, counter-terrorism and disaster relief drills that have not been held since 2018 amid the strained relations between Seoul and Tokyo, according to an informed source. Regional military tensions sharply escalated especially in 2017 and cooled down amid a brisk round of summit diplomacy highlighted by the historic summit talks between the U.S. and North Korea held in Singapore in June 2018.
"It is tantamount to a reversion to a period before 2018 -- when tensions ran high," Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said. "There is a need for such training given the growing nuclear threats, but it remains to be seen to what extent they would carry them out."
As the North has staged 18 known rounds of major weapons tests this year, including the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the South, the U.S. and Japan have shared the growing need for cooperation, including in the area of intelligence sharing. Under the Joe Biden administration, the U.S. has placed more emphasis on boosting three-way security partnerships with its Northeast Asian allies. Washington believes that it is central to preserving the so-called rules-based international order in the midst of China's growing assertiveness and the Russia-Ukraine war.
But historical tensions between the South and Japan -- stemming from the latter's 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula -- have posed a nagging challenge.
"North Korea's habitual provocations and missile tests only underscore the urgency of our task," Austin said in a speech at the Singapore forum on Saturday. "So, we're deepening the security cooperation among the U.S., Japan, and the Republic of Korea."
Closer-knit cooperation among the three regional powers could create unease, or even anger, not only in Pyongyang but also in Beijing.
Following the trilateral session, Lee, Austin and Kishi delivered an apparent message to China in a show of their countries' closer alignment against China's assertiveness.
"They emphasized the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait," their joint press statement reads. "They ... stressed the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight."
Nam Chang-hee, a professor of international politics at Inha University, said that stronger military cooperation among the South, the U.S. and Japan could help put pressure on China to do more to rein in the North's provocations.
"The fastest way to make China take steps to curb the North's saber-rattling would be increasing the level of military solidarity among the South, the U.S. and Japan in proportion to North Korean provocations," he said.
Questions linger over the future of three-way security cooperation, with Seoul and Tokyo still locked in long-simmering rows over thorny political and diplomatic issues of Japan's wartime forced labor and sexual enslavement of Korean women as well as its sovereignty claim to the East Sea islets of Dokdo.
Commenting publicly on the trilateral exercise issue, the South Korean defense minister drew a clear line between the South Korea-U.S. exercises involving field troop maneuvers, and three-way ones -- in an apparent sign of sticking to a prudent two-track approach in consideration of public sentiment at home.
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