On Thursday 29 April, US General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), met his Japanese and South Korean counterparts in Hawaii. These were Japanese Chief of Staff, Joint Staff General Koji Yamazaki and Chairman of the ROK Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Won In Choul. This was the first in-person meeting between officers of all three nations since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. An online trilateral meeting was also held back in November.
The military leaders discussed a number of pressing security concerns such as North Korea and its nuclear program. General Milley reiterated American commitment to its bilateral alliances with the two partners while General Yamazaki was reported as stressing the importance of trilateral cooperation for resolving regional security issues.
Yamazaki’s statement comes during a period of record tensions between South Korea and Japan. Boycotts and court rulings in Korea against Japanese companies have driven the neighbors even further apart while fundamental differences remain over historical issues pertaining to Japan’s colonization of Korea in the early 20th century.
In its annual diplomatic report, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) described Korean court rulings as violating international law while an earlier South Korea military white paper stopped referring to Japan as a “partner” as was previously the norm.
The disagreement between America’s allies is counterproductive for the security interests of all three powers and has long been a source of consternation for the United States. Following a visit to Korea and Japan by the US Secretaries of State and Defense in March, the ROK’s Minister of National Defense Suh Wook publicly called for improving the relationship. South Korea’s president has also stepped up his efforts to improve ties. Perhaps, Japan-ROK relations will rebound somewhat in the coming months.
A meeting between President Biden and Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is scheduled for 21 May. Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga already stopped by the White House last month.
In other news for the region, on 30 April, a day after the trilateral meeting, Admiral John Aquilino took over from Admiral Philip Davidson as INDOPACOM commander.