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Japanese media frets over end to war games

Mar 06,2019
Japan is showing concern over the fate of South Korea-U.S. military exercises and whether they will lead to reduced U.S. presence in the region, and the media covered the issue extensively Tuesday.

On Sunday, Seoul and Washington announced their decision to end the joint Key Resolve and Foal Eagle springtime military exercises to aid diplomacy for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, days after the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Instead, South Korea and the United States will hold the smaller-scale Dong Maeng drills that focus on the strategic, operational and tactical aspects of military operations.

Japanese media covered issues such worries of a possible vacuum in defense against North Korea and whether this will lead to the reduction or withdrawal of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), or if the burden of deterring North Korean threats will fall upon Japan.

Asahi Shimbun cited Japan Self-Defense Forces officials as saying that South Korea-U.S. combined combat capabilities will decline “because of lack of training.”

It added that North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat against Japan will remain in place, while the South Korea and U.S. military pressure on North Korea will inevitably be reduced.

The Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that China, which wants to exercise influence over the entire Korean Peninsula, will encourage North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to push more strongly for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region.

Following the end to the joint military exercises, the financial daily reported that “if the discussion leads to the reduction or withdrawal of the USFK, this could lead to the danger of a change in the security structure in the Northeast Asia region.”

Yomiuri Shimbun likewise cited a military analyst as saying that “an operational plan without drills is like a scenario without a rehearsal,” noting that if large-scale exercises are not held for over three years, it will hinder Seoul-Washington ties.

It said that if South Korean and U.S. military pressure is eased against North Korea, but Pyongyang doesn’t show progress in denuclearization, “the regional military balance would collapse.”

U.S. President Donald Trump posted on Twitter Monday that the issue of the South Korea-U.S. joint military exercises was “never even discussed” in his summit with Kim Jong-un last week in Hanoi.

Instead, he tweeted: “I made that decision long ago because it costs the U.S. far too much money to have those ‘games,’ especially since we are not reimbursed for the tremendous cost!”

Since his presidential campaign days, Trump has insinuated that he could consider withdrawing U.S. troops from Korea and Japan, as well as pulling back the U.S. nuclear umbrella over the region if allies do not pay more for defense.

Tokyo is also expressing concern over the possibility that Washington may also apply similar standards to U.S. troops in Japan.

The right-wing Sankei Shimbun reported that Seoul is fundamentally responsible for the shutting down of the joint Korea-U.S. springtime exercises.

It wrote that President Trump citing financial concerns as the reason for shutting down the joint drills was in response to “South Korea not properly responding to North Korea’s threat and taking a free ride on U.S. Forces Korea for decades.”

It added that with the pretext of reducing tensions with North Korea, should the Korea-U.S. drills become weakened and U.S. troops reduced or withdrawn, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces “may have to bear the burden of responding to an emergency situation on the Korean Peninsula.”

Sankei went on to quote a former U.S. government senior official familiar with the situation in Northeast Asia as saying that the United States “lacks trust” in South Korea as an allied country, so Japan has to be prepared to take on the capability of making a pre-emptive strike against enemy bases, something long pushed for by Japanese conservatives.

This leads to the possibility that should Korea-U.S. joint exercises come to a long-term halt, Japan may use this as an excuse to expand its military power in the region.

A Korean source in Tokyo said, “Using as a pretext the halting of Korea-U.S. exercises and the collapse of deterrence on the Korean Peninsula, Japanese conservatives will push to strengthen Japan’s military power.”

Last December, the Japanese cabinet passed its long-term National Defense Program Guideline, approving a major upgrade and deployment of its aircraft carriers, which some defense experts said violated elements of Japan’s peace constitution.

BY SEO SEUNG-WOOK, SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]