A high-ranking government official has asked U.S. officials to "reflect" Korea's sovereignty over the entire Korean Peninsula before endorsing Japan's right to engage the country's strictly defensive military in operations abroad.
This is the first time that Korea has directly put its position to the U.S. about the issue of Japan's attempts to legitimize so-called "collective self-defense," which would allow Japanese troops to fight abroad if an ally is in some way under threat. This could lead to Japanese troops being deployed to the Korean Peninsula in support of the U.S. Forces Korea in the event of an emergency here.
Koreans have a deep-seated suspicion of Japan's military since the brutal occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 until the end of World War II.
Although the UN Charter gives governments the right to collective self-defense, Japan voluntarily relinquished it due to its pacifist postwar constitution. But now the hard-right Abe administration is trying to amend the constitution to assert it again, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. have endorsed the move in order to keep China's rising military power in check.
That is why Seoul wants to make sure that Japanese soldiers are never again allowed to land on Korean soil, whatever the circumstances. In order to make sure it does not happen, Seoul must strike a cast-iron agreement with the U.S. while strengthening its own defenses.
Japan's attempts at rearmament will have a major impact on Northeast Asian security. An arms race between China and Japan will create clouds of a new Cold War in the region, and U.S.-Japan relations could take precedence over U.S.-Korea ties. South Korea would then find itself in a dilemma because it is dependent on the U.S. for its security and on China for business.
The rightwingers now in charge in Japan are also aggressively pushing the country’s flimsy colonial claim to Korea's Dokdo islets. In every aspect, Japan's moves to assert the right to collective self-defense involve Korea.
There were signs recently that the government here would tacitly accept Japan's right to collective self-defense. Instead it should try to convince the U.S. that letting Japanese troops operate abroad could damage its entire strategy in Asia since it has no support from anyone in the region, no matter how aligned. This must be done before Washington and Tokyo sit down for their annual defense talks next year.
This is a crossroads in Northeast Asian security, but it also offers Korea a chance to bolster its geopolitical role. Whether the country can turn this crisis into an opportunity depends on the skills of its diplomacy.