WASHINGTON - Japan and South Korea's unprecedented joint participation in air force exercises over Alaska shows that America's two staunchest Asian allies are willing to cooperate on security despite their political differences.
Their aircraft have been flying the annual Red Flag Alaska training drills that end Friday, along with U.S. and Australian forces. The exercise has included simulated combat maneuvers in which Korean fighter jets helped secure airspace for military transport planes from Japan and other nations.
In recent years, Seoul and Tokyo have taken tentative steps to improve security cooperation. They have exchanged observers during military exercises and engaged together in naval training drills. But this is the first time their fighter jets have flown in the same exercise.
Jim Schoff, a former Pentagon adviser for East Asia policy, said that's a sign Japan and South Korea are not letting their bilateral frictions prevent a slow and steady improvement in their military cooperation. But he said the cooperation remains limited and is no cure for their political differences that last year derailed a bilateral agreement on sharing military information.
The tensions are rooted in Korean anger over Japan's attitude toward its colonial past and use of Korean sex slaves during World War II. The two nations also have conflicting claims to tiny Korean-administered islands in the seas between them.
Last week, two Japanese Cabinet ministers visited a shrine dedicated to 2.5 million Japanese war dead, including war criminals. Such visits anger Seoul and Beijing, which also suffered under Japanese colonial occupation. However, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, known for his hawkish views, stayed away from the Yasukuni Shrine.
On the face of it, Japan and South Korea have lots of reasons to work together on security. Both are prosperous democracies and host to tens of thousands of American forces. They share a common interest in deterring a nuclear-armed and unpredictable neighbor: North Korea.
The two-week Red Flag Alaska exercise, which ends Friday, involves about 60 aircraft and 2,600 personnel, including from the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines. Japan and Australia have participated in the annual exercise before, but it is South Korea's first time.
The exercise is a chance for participants to sharpen their combat skills in a realistic threat environment and integrate various forces in joint training, U.S. Air Force Capt. Joost Verduyn said in an emailed response to questions.
Lt. Col. Tom Pagano, commander of the 353rd Combat Training Squadron, which plans Red Flag Alaska, said that seeing two major U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea, practicing together is likely to be the highlight of the exercise.
"We have allies that are now on the same sheet of music able to cooperate, integrate and face a common foe (North Korea)," he was quoted as saying by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, a newspaper in Alaska.