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U.S., South Korea, Japan Enhance Missile Response to North Korean Tests

In an effort to coordinate a strategic line of defense against North Korean missile aggression, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan have entered into a trilateral security cooperation agreement to foster real-time data sharing on missile tracking. This collaborative effort aims to swiftly respond to North Korean threats, with broader implications for deterring aggression and influencing regional dynamics.

Discrepancy on North Korean Missile Test

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In October 2021, South Korea reported detecting a ballistic missile fired from a North Korean submarine. Initially, Japan stated it fired two missiles, highlighting the challenges of real-time missile tracking. This discrepancy in reports revealed gnawing information gaps when it comes to formulating defense mechanisms.

Information Gaps Addressed

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To enhance their response capabilities, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan initiated real-time sharing of missile-tracking data last week. This marks a significant shift from the previous practice of only partial data exchange between Japan and South Korea.

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Symbolic Step in Bilateral Relations

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The data-sharing agreement marks improved relations between South Korea and Japan. In March, the leaders held their first in-person summit in over a decade, agreeing to deepen military and economic ties and overcoming historical tensions.

Tripartite Cooperation Takes Shape

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The U.S., South Korea, and Japan aim to respond more swiftly to North Korean missile launches. Real-time data sharing provides a comprehensive picture, potentially allowing for quicker analysis and interception, crucial in a security crisis.

Coordinated Deterrence Against North Korea

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The information exchange serves as a deterrent to North Korea, which views it as an “extremely dangerous military act.” Pyongyang sees it as a potential prelude to an invasion, diverting attention from diplomatic talks with the U.S.

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Putting China Under Pressure

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Beyond North Korea, the enhanced cooperation puts pressure on China. The U.S., South Korea, and Japan strengthening alliances raises concerns in Beijing, accusing them of escalating tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.

China’s Reaction and Concerns

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China, critical of regional alliances, warned against forming exclusive groups. In August, after the Camp David summit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin warned, “attempts to form various exclusive groups and cliques and to bring bloc confrontation into the Asia-Pacific region” would result in backfiring.

THAAD System Strains U.S.-China Relations

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The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, set to be fully operational, has strained U.S.-China relations. Beijing opposes it, claiming economic retaliation against Seoul, as THAAD’s radar can reach into China.

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Diverse Surveillance Capabilities

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Satellites, land-based radar, naval vessels, and reconnaissance aircraft from the U.S., South Korea, and Japan collectively track North Korean missiles. Each country’s assets contribute unique data, forming a comprehensive picture.

Rapid Data Transmission

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Upon a North Korean missile launch, U.S. satellites detect the heat signature, immediately sharing the information with allies. South Korea’s radar, due to proximity, tracks the missile’s ascent, while Japanese destroyers monitor the descent.

Hub for Real-Time Information

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Previously, data analysis lagged when Japan and South Korea shared information through the U.S. Now, missile radar systems are linked to a common platform at the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command headquarters, enabling real-time accessibility for all three countries.

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Significance of Timely Information

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Given that a missile can reach Japan in about 10 minutes, real-time data sharing becomes crucial. Quick access to information enhances accurate early warning and improves analysis for effective response strategies.

False Alarm in Japan

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In April, Japan issued a false missile warning that prompted over five million people to seek shelter. The alert was corrected based on updated information about the missile’s trajectory, explaining the importance of data accuracy.

Challenges with Evolving Missile Technology

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North Korea’s development of more maneuverable missiles poses challenges to defense systems. The evolving threat requires constant adaptation and innovation in missile defense strategies.

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Political Will to Sustain Cooperation

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Sustaining the information-sharing system requires political will. Improved ties in 2021 reflect efforts by U.S. President Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, and their Japanese counterpart to strengthen cooperation amid regional challenges.

Historical Disputes Impacting Ties

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The historical disputes between South Korea and Japan have, at times, strained military ties. Efforts to mend relations involve overcoming disagreements stemming from Japan’s colonization of Korea (1910-1945).

Risks of Reversal in Information Sharing

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Despite improved ties, historical grievances pose a risk of reversal. Disputes between South Korea and Japan have previously led to threats of withdrawing military intelligence agreements, emphasizing the need for continued cooperation.

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Role of Leaders in Sustaining Ties

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Current leaders play a crucial role in sustaining information-sharing advantages. President Biden’s focus on countering China and North Korea aligns with the interests of South Korean and Japanese leaders, contributing to a united front.

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