- - Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Korean Peninsula has posed a seemingly intractable challenge for the United States for six and a half decades, and North Korea’s latest round of provocations has crystalized the danger of a nuclear-armed regime. Beijing and Washington may disagree about the future of Korea, but leaders on both sides of the Pacific agree that such weapons have no place in North Korea. Unfortunately, previous efforts to deter Pyongyang have failed. Successfully prohibiting North Korea from nuclear weaponization requires a new strategy that utilizes a strengthened trilateral alliance between the United States, Republic of Korea and Japan.

A robust trilateral alliance serves multiple purposes, the clearest of which is to strengthen the U.S. and Korean response to any hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. If hostilities ever broke out across the 38th Parallel, Japanese involvement would be required for a successful effort against North Korean forces. At a bare minimum, Japanese bases and ports would be vital logistical hubs. Following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent defense reforms allowing collective self-defense, Japanese Self Defense Forces can now also take an active role in any future campaign. This means Japan could be a true force multiplier for allied action, providing valuable capabilities in anti-submarine warfare, ballistic missile defense, minesweeping and search and rescue.

Leaders in Seoul have long assumed that if conflict broke out, U.S. forces and bases in Japan would be available, but have seen little need for further Japanese assistance. Such support, however, should not be taken for granted. Instead, U.S. and Korea planners should begin incorporating the Japanese into planning and training so that in the event of a crisis, all three countries are prepared and have effective coordination mechanisms already in place. Such steps would also highlight the importance of Japanese involvement.

Beyond the wartime value of trilateral security, closer U.S.-South Korea-Japan cooperation would help maintain the peace and security the region has largely enjoyed over the past 60 years by creating a new form of leverage. Over the years, many have called on China to tame its boisterous ally, but Pyongyang’s recent nuclear and missile tests demonstrate China’s lack of control or lack of will to exercise control. Regardless, action from Beijing — or the U.N., for that matter — is unlikely to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, much less achieve denuclearization.

A strong U.S.-South Korea-Japan partnership could provide the right incentive for starting this process. The Kim regime focuses almost solely on survival, and trilateral security efforts would demonstrate that the North’s nuclear ambitions are counterproductive to that end by consolidating regional actors against it. Similarly, closer ties between the United States and its Northeast Asia allies could motivate China to use whatever influence it wields in Pyongyang, since it too opposes a stronger alliance.

Japan and South Korea represent the United States’ closest allies in Asia, and the trilateral relationship will be the bedrock of the U.S. foreign policy in Asia for decades to come. The notion of three-way coordination between the allies has been discussed for years, but due to recent diplomatic breakthroughs and Pyongyang’s aggression, the environment has never been so favorable for establishing trilateral defense policies. Decisive leadership from Washington in taking practical steps toward creating institutionalized cooperation will be critical for creating this new alliance and deterring the North.

There are many hurdles to overcome. A poorly executed effort could destabilize the region if North Korea fears for its existence or if China feels encircled by the United States. Clear messaging and dialogue that reiterates the defensive nature of the trilateral cooperation and its focus on the Korean Peninsula can mitigate these risks.

More challenging, perhaps, are the historical tensions between Korea and Japan. U.S. government officials should therefore strive to separate the very real cultural and identity issues from defense matters.

A number of practical steps should be taken to this end. First, Washington needs to push Seoul and Tokyo to re-engage on the information-sharing agreement abandoned in 2012. This agreement would allow a seamless flow of intelligence between all three countries and streamline communication and coordination. Second, the United States should advocate for recurring meetings between all three parties — from the national leadership level to the ministerial level and on down to the operational levels. Finally, the U.S. military should begin trilateral planning and training with Japan and Korea. This will not only demonstrate the value of trilateralism but also exercise the actual elements of cooperation.

In its calls for closer trilateral ties over the years, the United States has done an excellent job of explaining why such an alliance is good for its own national interests. The challenge now is demonstrating to the Koreans and Japanese how trilateralism is key to their interests as well. A nuclear-armed North Korea poses a real danger to the United States and its partners in Northeast Asia, and Pyongyang can only be checked by a strong, united front. The United States must act now to create a new trilateral defense framework that will guide Asian security for decades to come.

McDaniel Wicker is a fellow on Asia security at the Wilson Center. He previously served as an U.S. Air Force officer, largely in the Asia-Pacific region.

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