Korea and the Dynamics of Japan's Post-Cold War Security Policy

By Kang, C. S. Eliot; Kaseda, Yoshinori | World Affairs, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview
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Korea and the Dynamics of Japan's Post-Cold War Security Policy

Kang, C. S. Eliot, Kaseda, Yoshinori, World Affairs

With the end of the cold war, Japan has "rediscovered" the critical importance of the neighboring Korean peninsula to its security. In recent years, Japan has faced more directly the challenges presented by a divided Korea. It has committed itself as a key financial sponsor of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) and a backer of the Four-Party Peace Talks and other multilateral confidence- and security-building efforts. It has also supported South Korea's "sunshine policy," a strategy of patient engagement that resulted in the historic summit between President Kim Dae Jung of South Korea and Chairman Kim Jong Il of North Korea. Furthermore, perhaps with greater long-term consequences, Japan has hedged those diplomatic moves by strengthening its long-standing bilateral alliance with the United States, seeking ways to cooperate with South Korea on security matters, and increasing its own military options in case things go wrong on the Korean peninsula.

The flexibility and multidimensionality of Japan's post-cold war security policy toward Korea suggest that Japan's decades-old, self-imposed restriction on offensive military capabilities and avoidance of collective security arrangements may be undergoing changes not yet fully understood. Although it is unlikely that Japan will seek to become a "great power" again any time soon, its post-cold war security policy toward Korea indicates that, if threatened, Japan is ready to take more proactive measures--collectively as well as unilaterally --to ensure its own security. In this article I examine how the end of the cold war has changed Japan's security policy toward Korea and explore its future direction.


Geographical propinquity makes Korea a core national security concern for Japan. Japanese strategists of the Meiji era were aware of this fact when, through a series of successful wars and diplomatic machinations, they coerced the neighboring peninsula country into Japan's orbit by the early part of the last century. However, with its defeat in World War II and the United States' assuming the burden of South Korea's defense in 1950, Japan did not have to do very much directly about the Korean peninsula during the period of bipolar competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the cold war, Japan took a more detached stance toward Korea because of the intra-Korean nature of the conflict on the peninsula, the strong commitment of the United States to regional security, and the fact that the rival Koreas lacked the capability to threaten Japan.

Unfortunately for Japan, the end of the cold war did not have the stabilizing effect in Northeast Asia that it had in Central Europe. In fact, the end of the superpower rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union amplified Japan's vulnerability to security problems stemming from the predicament of divided Korea.

Given the well-known peculiarities of East Asian history, tellingly, in the immediate wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Korea that Japan was more concerned about was South Korea. With a new, more complex, multipolar regional security dynamic replacing the bipolar competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, security planners in Tokyo and Seoul began to worry about the strategic intentions of their neighbor across the East Sea/Sea of Japan.

South Korea had reservations about Japan's ongoing military modernization despite the rapidly declining capabilities of the once formidable Soviet air and naval forces in the Pacific. In its 1990 Defense White Paper, the South Korean defense ministry stated that Japan's military buildup could be a negative factor affecting South Korea's national security. Seoul became particularly concerned when the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War led to debates in the Japanese Diet about the use of the Self-Defense Forces for peace-keeping operations abroad, a major change in Japan's post-World War II security policy.

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