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The Peninsula

New Prospects for U.S.-Korea-Japan Cooperation

Published January 30, 2020

By Emanuel Pastreich

The difficulties in promoting cooperation between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, D.C. in response to the rising technological and economic strength of China has been the hot topic of discussion in the United States. The standard answer is to attribute the difficulties to historical issues that have created an emotional gap between these two allies of the United States.

Although the resentment of Koreans regarding the events of the pre-war period are real, and they do occasionally create major obstacles, it is far from certain that they are the primary cause of the divergent views. It is entirely natural that South Korea, Japan, and the United States have divergent geopolitical interests. It is also clear that all three countries are riven domestically by ideological schisms that make a “NATO of Asia” difficult, if not impossible.

The push for collaboration has focused largely on military and security, with China postulated as a potential threat that must be countered through deterrence. Although this perspective has become commonplace in Washington, D.C., it is far from the consensus among experts on security in the United States, let alone in South Korea and Japan. If anything, concerns about nuclear war, climate change, the unprecedented concentration of wealth, and the negative impact of artificial intelligence and automation on human society dwarf any security threat from China, or from North Korea.

Thus, it is no surprise that there is no consensus on forging deeper military ties centered on potential threats from North Korea and China in the three countries.

In addition, we must ask ourselves whether future conflicts will follow familiar patterns. The rapid evolution of new technologies, from 3D printing to micro drones, to next-generation artificial intelligence assures us of a future in which powerful destructive tools will be available to small groups at the same time that internet-based links bring together similar groups around the world for like purposes. Such developments could make many current weapons systems obsolete from the start.

Technological change has also encouraged deep fragmentation within nation-states, at home and abroad.  Simply raising military budgets, or preaching about our alliances, is not going to make us safer. We need to understand the nature of emerging threats that go beyond the schemata we have used previously to define security, and make sure that citizens in all three countries are properly informed.

Whether we are talking about preventing nuclear war, climate catastrophe, or hybrid conflicts at the national, regional and international levels, we need to use our creativity.

Cooperation between the United States, South Korea, and Japan in the security realm, either traditional or non-traditional, can be extremely positive, but it must be the result of a rigorous and robust discussion between the three countries on science, technology, the environment, policy and strategy as well. That discussion will not only assure us that we are spending the tax dollars of citizens on responses to security threats that are up to date and effective, but will also create a broad consensus among the citizens and experts involved in this discussion at every level that will help to avoid misunderstandings in the future.

The economic and technological integration between these three nations is considerable and offers paths for effective cooperation to address emerging challenges.

Rather than force through military-military cooperation which does not grow naturally out of a broader discussion, the three countries need to broaden and deepen cooperation in fields that deeply inform security, but which are not strictly military.

Education

There is tremendous potential for cooperation in education between the United States, South Korea, and Japan which should be pursued in a systematic manner. For example, we can create sister relations between elementary schools, middle schools and high schools at the local level in all three countries that will be the foundations for deep exchanges. Internet-based learning can serve as an opportunity for students in the three countries to meet up with each other on-line, engage in common projects and learn about each other’s neighborhoods, regions and countries.

If those exchanges are carried on long-term, they may evolve into lifetime relationships that will bring the three countries together.

Whether it is American, Korean and Japanese first-graders making presentations about their neighborhoods for each other, or community college students discussing with their peers how we should respond to the threat of nuclear war or the fragmentation of society, these opportunities for direct collaboration in education would be immensely valuable in building lasting ties.

Science

We cannot discuss the future of security unless our discussion is grounded in science. We must encourage the use of the scientific method in all three countries at every level, from discussions among friends up to the formulation of national policy.

Towards this end, we must promote long-term collaboration in scientific research between the three countries which is combined with a broader effort to promote scientific thinking in society as a whole.

There are projects in scientific research that involve researchers in the three nations already, as well as other nations. It would be possible to focus government funding on collaborative research between the three countries for long-term research projects on critical issues that would tie the three together in a stable and predictable manner and promote broader cooperation.

The joint research in biology and bioengineering between Professor Heiwan Lee of Hanyang University and Hara Masahiko of RIKEN that was active from 2010 to 2016 is a model for how joint collaboration can be conducted between Japan and South Korea. Bringing in an American institutional partner to that project would have made it even stronger.

But science is not just about research. It is critical that we invest heavily in increasing the understanding of science among citizens in the three countries and international cooperation in civic education is another critical field. Town Hall forums that encourage a scientific analysis of the challenges facing human society can be planned that link together citizens from the three countries and that provide, through translation, opportunities for deeper exchanges. Shared best practices between the United States, South Korea, and Japan, for example, could be valuable.

Technology and policy

Existing networks for cooperation for the development of technology and for the formulation of policy between the three countries can be enhanced and brought to focus on the needs of society, rather than financial profit.

For example, the development of the technology for next-generation electric batteries, solar cells, or wind-powered generators that will be in the public domain could be undertaken by the three countries. So also, programs for the development of new policies to implement those resilient technologies at the local level could be developed through cooperation between the three countries. The sharing of best practices could be done in the form of sister city/sister state relations, thereby encouraging collaboration between citizens.

The arts and the humanities

Cooperation in the performing arts, film, painting, sculpture, and writing could be a critical means of drawing the three countries together and creating a consensus on current issues. What we think about security in the United States, South Korea, and Japan will be determined by how “security” is represented and discussed. Security is ultimately a cultural, and not a technological, issue. Therefore the humanities are not secondary fields to policy and technology, but rather they are the front line where philosophy, morality, and methods of representation intersect.

The three countries can cooperate in making films that address the concerns of youth, the threat of climate change, the growing inequity in our society and numerous other topics. Providing reliable funding for such efforts can help artists and intellectuals from the three countries to join forces in efforts to create works of art that help citizens to conceive of current threats like climate change and nuclear war and that offer new directions for international collaboration between citizens for security.

Cultural exchanges can do much to deepen current discussions between the three countries. If we include creative activities like writing and music into otherwise dry and formalized discussions about security and trade, we can create an environment in which innovative approaches are possible and a more honest debate conceivable.

I have attended many meetings between high-level figures from government, industry, and research in which the conversation never went beyond the most superficial greetings. Such overly formalized meetings are tremendous loss because often the experts assembled represented a treasure of expertise.

Just having a chance to listen to a musical performance together, or create a work of art together, can transform such meetings into something remarkably positive. The arts and humanities can contribute not only to helping citizens to understand the challenges of our age, but also in facilitating a discourse between policymakers that goes beyond the rituals of state and gives real gravitas to the exchange.

Conclusion

The goal of enhancing cooperation between the United States, South Korea and Japan in the field of security is worthy. Achieving that goal will be a complex process. Identifying what exactly security will mean in the 21st century, and how we can cooperate in our response is a task that will require the three countries to cooperate closely at all levels, from kindergarten to advanced research laboratories, for the long term. Before we start signing any narrow military and intelligence agreements, let us make sure that we have worked together closely as citizens, experts and policy makers to understand scientifically the current challenges and to respond in a constructive and effective manner.

Emanuel Pastreich is the President of The Asia Institute and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own. 

Image from the U.S. State Department flickr account.

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