Japan Needs South Korea to Defend Against Kim’s Missiles

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(Bloomberg) -- As Japan and South Korea attempt once again to put their bitter 20th century disputes to rest, it signals a growing recognition in both capitals that their 21st century security may depend on each other.

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South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol goes to Tokyo on Thursday trying to end four years of feuding over compensation for Japan’s use of forced labor during its 1910-45 occupation of the peninsula. It’s the first visit by a South Korean leader since 2019, and will include a meeting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the first such summit on Japanese soil in more than a decade.

Just before Yoon was set to depart, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile, which served as a reminder of the threat it poses to the region.

The meeting came together because Yoon, a conservative who took office a year ago, had decided that continuous bickering with a fellow US treaty ally was bad for both countries, according to a South Korean official close to the talks. The prosecutor-turned-politician made it a high priority six months ago to find a way to pay people forced to work at Japanese colonial-era mines and factories that was acceptable to Tokyo, the official said.

“I believe we must end the vicious cycle of mutual hostility and work together to seek our two countries’ common interests,” Yoon said in a joint interview before departing for Japan. Adding it was in the security interests of both sides to cooperate as they stare down Kim Jong Un’s regime, with benefits such as enhanced data sharing enabling “a more powerful and effective response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.”

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The solution — get local companies that benefited from Japan’s postwar treaty with South Korea to pay the victims — has faced immediate backlash in Seoul, where animosity toward the country’s former colonial ruler runs deep. But it was hailed as “groundbreaking” by US President Joe Biden, who needs the two wealthy Asian democracies to cooperate in his efforts to counter China and North Korea.

The talks come as Japan and South Korea both invest heavily on their own arsenals for a preemptive strike on the likes of North Korea. While the two sides feuded, North Korean leader Kim was busy rolling out a new generation of rockets that are quick to fire and maneuverable in the air, which greatly reduced the time the two had to react and their ability to try to shoot them down.

Kishida may find that one of the best ways to protect his country is to work with South Korea, which is in a far better position to blow up missiles on the launchpad before they can be fired. Information sharing among Japan, South Korea and the US is key to ensuring the Pentagon’s nuclear-armed forces can respond, as well.

“Distance is the most important factor in missile defense,” said Park Hwee-rhak, a military analyst based in Seoul and former colonel in the South Korean army. “If missiles are launched from South Korea, it would take only a few minutes to strike the North’s missile facilities.”

Kim’s new solid-fuel missiles can be set-up and launched in 10-15 minutes and travel in excess of five times the speed of sound. Once fired, they would only need about another five to 15 minutes to reach any US base in South Korea and Japan, where almost 80,000 American military personnel and their families live and work.

One of Pyongyang’s top priorities for an attack would be to knock out as many military assets as possible in the region. After an initial wave, US military forces from Japan and places like Guam would likely be called upon to deliver a devastating counterattack.

The forced-labor deal could open new areas of cooperation among the three sides, beyond the intelligence-sharing pact that nearly unraveled at the height of the recent feuding. While Yoon had stepped up security cooperation with Washington and Tokyo, including three-way drills in international waters off the Korean Peninsula, deeper ties were difficult as long as South Korea was expecting Japanese companies to pay victims.

“This was a bone in a throat, and if the forced-labor issue is resolved, the Japan-ROK relationship is dramatically improved,” said Kazuto Suzuki, a professor of science and technology policy at University of Tokyo, who referred to South Korea by its formal name.

Yoon’s office has said he plans ways to “normalize” ties with Japan and implement the deal for the colonial-era workers. The two will meet on Thursday for talks and a dinner. The South Korean president will meet lawmakers on Friday, hold a luncheon with business leaders and try to squeeze in a dish of omelet over fried rice, the Yomiuri newspaper reported.

Japan is investing heavily to expand its capacity for long-distance strikes, spending more than ¥200 billion ($1.5 billion) to buy about 400 of Raytheon Technologies Corp.’s Tomahawk cruise missiles. It also plans to upgrade the Type 12 anti-ship missile — developed domestically by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries — to reach all of North Korea, as well as nearby Chinese and Russian naval bases.

Still, such subsonic missiles would need an hour or more make the trip to North Korea, giving Kim enough time to fire off a volley from his mobile launching platforms and move them to safety before impact. And although Japan’s boasts growing missile-defense capability, including the second-largest fleet of Aegis-equipped destroyers US Navy, it can’t guarantee a rocket won’t get through.

“The deployment of 400 Tomahawks may help in addressing the psychological sense of insecurity caused by North Korea’s nuclear armament,” said Chun Yungwoo, a former national security adviser to South Korea’s president. “However, from a national security and military standpoint, it does not seem to be a practical or sensible choice.”

A better use of money would be in investing in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to monitor North Korea’s missile bases and related assets, said Chun, who helped broker a rare nuclear-disarmament deal with Pyongyang at international talks more than a decade ago.

Missiles and artillery fired from South Korea could hit targets in all parts North Korea in a matter of minutes. South Korea has developed its preemptive strike strategy dubbed “Kill Chain” that aims to destroy North Korea’s missiles and nuclear assets before they can be used.

If threat of a nuclear response by the US failed, and North Korea decided to strike first, the best option would be to target North Korea’s mobile launchers and missile bases, Chun said. “Intercepting them in the air through multiple layers of missile-defense systems is the last resort available,” he said, adding that “massive retaliation” would continue until North Korea accepted unconditional surrender.

Naoko Aoki, an associate political scientist with the Rand Corp. in Washington said there were various ways Japan and South Korea could be doing more, such as contingency planning. If there was a military situation on the peninsula, Japan would need to find a way to evacuate its tens of thousands of nationals in South Korea, which would likely involve Seoul signing off on allowing in Japanese military planes for evacuations, she said.

“Other ways in which smooth cooperation could help include the three countries’ data sharing,” Aoki said. “If that goes seamlessly, the chances of intercepting North Korean missiles improve.”

--With assistance from Sangmi Cha.

(Updates with North Korean missile launch in third paragraph.)

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