Japan and Korea: Friends at Sea

April 10, 2014 Topic: Security Region: JapanSouth Korea

Japan and Korea: Friends at Sea

Relations on land are tough. But cooperating against piracy far away is one way to move forward.

Editor’s Note: TNI has teamed up with Japan-ROK Working Group at thePacific Forum CSIS in order to preview its upcoming report focused on improving bilateral relations through targeted engagement on a range of areas. The “Japan-ROK Series” will feature five timely articles summarizing these recommendations in fields such as cooperation on North Korea, missile defense, counterpiracy, energy security and inter-parliamentary ties. This is the second article in the series.

The last two years have seen tensions rise between South Korea and Japan as historical and territorial issues have become more prominent. However, despite these tensions, both nations share common interests in freedom of navigation to facilitate the maritime trade that powers the world’s fifteenth- and third-largest economies, respectively. As a result, the potential exists for Japan and South Korea to cooperate more deeply in guaranteeing the safety of sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and addressing the challenges of maritime piracy and armed robbery, which remain an impediment to global freedom of navigation and maritime trade.

There are two main piracy hotspots along the SLOCs that extend from Europe to East Asia: the Gulf of Aden, and in parts of Southeast Asia. Historically, most of the pirate activity in the former region was concentrated in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea, but attacks have more recently begun shifting towards the waters and harbors of Indonesia.

This transnational threat to the global supply chain requires a dynamic multinational response. Both Japan and South Korea already devote resources to tackling piracy and take part in multilateral initiatives. However, bilateral cooperation remains underdeveloped and presents a potential opportunity for strategic cooperation.

Both states should consider new bilateral initiatives or pursue closer cooperation through multilateral fora. Below are some concrete steps they could consider taking.


1. Increased frequency of naval and coast-guard exercises

Bilateral Japanese-Korean exercises are scarce, some cooperation in maritime search-and-rescue operations notwithstanding. Despite political hurdles, it is important for the two countries to hold more bilateral naval and coast-guard exercises and patrols.

Both navies are already conducting counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, offering an ideal opportunity for joint naval drills far removed from the disputed areas. Closer to home, bilateral coast-guard exercises could be undertaken in less sensitive areas, such as off the coast of Busan. As has recently become commonplace, the U.S. in particular could act as a facilitator in case there is little political impetus for bilateral projects. Such exercises also have the benefit of helping both navies develop transferable skills that could become applicable in the case of a crisis near either Korea or Japan.

2. Information sharing and structured dialogue

a) Information sharing: The signing of a bilateral information-sharing agreement to facilitate cooperation on militarily and politically less sensitive issues in the maritime domain would be a significant confidence-building measure. However, such integrated information sharing is sensitive and would need to take into account the potential reaction of China, which is entangled in the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute with Japan.

One example of an existing system that could serve as a template is the I2C, initiated by the European Union (EU). It allows EU states’ constabulary forces and law-enforcement agencies to track the movement of vessels in real time, to immediately flag any suspicious activities, and take quick action. The I2C was developed principally to facilitate cooperation in countering threats such as clandestine immigration, illegal fishing and pollution. If undertaken by Japan and the ROK, this type of project should be underpinned by an emphasis on such common threats.

b) Annual coast-guard talks: This form of sustained institutional contact would ensure continued information and experience sharing, as well as help with trust building. Later, it could be expanded to include other agencies and institutions and serve as a platform to launch new bilateral initiatives. Such a structured mid-level dialogue would also allow a greater degree of institutional cooperation and the launching of pilot projects.

3. A Japan-Korea ‘Shiprider’ Program

The U.S.-Canada Shiprider Program allows for the coast-guard vessels of one state to enter the territorial vessels of another if the other country’s officer is on board. Japan and Korea could establish a similar program with such close-knit cooperation as its long-term goal. In order to achieve it, it should be preceded by a series of Track 2 or Track 1.5 dialogues, and limited pilot projects, which would serve as ‘proofs of concept’.

Initially, exchanges could be limited to the duration of bilateral or multilateral drills. Later, both the number of crew members on such exchanges as well as the duration of their stay could increase, and they could become actively involved in the regular operational activities of the other force.

4. Coastal Communities Initiative

Maritime piracy cannot be eliminated through operations at sea alone. In order to combat piracy more comprehensively, a concerted effort targeting the root cause of piracy—a lack of profitable economic opportunities—and the development of adequate local governance and law enforcement infrastructure are necessary.

Rather than merely focusing on policing the seas lanes, the potential exists for Korea and Japan to work together to improve the conditions in coastal areas along key sea-lanes through development and governance projects. South Korea and Japan’s development agencies, KOICA and JICA, could establish a joint office to coordinate and cooperate on projects related to the development of communities along key coastal areas. However, rather than taking the traditional model of development projects, the program should be established along the lines of Korea’s Knowledge Sharing Program (KSP).

The KSP was designed to support the development of partner countries by providing knowledge from Korea’s own experience as a developing country. However, unlike the current program which focuses on the economic side of development, South Korea and Japan should expand upon the concept to also provide political knowledge and experience related to good governance.

More traditional maritime activities could also be weaved into the program to integrate efforts from coast to sea. These could include training on maritime-domain awareness and the provision of technology or equipment to constabulary forces of third states (primarily those in Southeast Asia), which could be undertaken jointly. Such a combined approach could also greatly reduce costs, while allowing the law-enforcement and coast-guard forces of regional states to shoulder a greater degree of responsibility in their own jurisdiction.


I. Cooperation through existing multilateral forums

a) Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP): Since its establishment in 2006, ReCAAP has become the central hub for information exchange on piracy incidents on Asia, as well as for experience sharing and capacity building between its nineteen Contracting Parties (which include Japan and South Korea).

The mandate of ReCAAP allows for tailored capacity-building initiatives and joint exercises. This allows Contracting Parties to work through ReCAAP on bilateral cooperation. This cooperation appears to be relatively underutilized at present, allowing Japan and the ROK to develop projects aimed directly at bolstering their anti-piracy capabilities, such as training seminars, workshops, or coast-guard exercises. This would enable both states’ coast guards and other agencies to cooperate even when diplomatic tensions preclude the implementation of bilateral projects.

b) ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF): Both states are participants in the ASEAN+3 and the ARF, which includes cooperative approaches to sea lines of communication, including exchanges of information and training, under its list of confidence-building measures. The forums also allow for bilateral consultations and dialogue between participating states. The ARF has a variety of bodies where such cooperation could be pursued, at least on the sidelines. These include the ARF Inter-Sessional Meeting on Maritime Security (ISM-MS), the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), the ARF Inter-Sessional Meeting on Counterterrorism and Transnational Crime (ISM CT-TC), the ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF) and the Expanded ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF).

II. Toward an Asia-Pacific Coast Guard Forum

The North Pacific Coast Guard Forum (NPCGF) brings together the coast guards of Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States. Korea and Japan could propose a new Maritime Piracy Working Group within the NPCGF, adding to its existing five, which cover areas such as illegal fishing and migration. As most piracy incidents in Asia take place in the Southeast, such a Working Group could also expand the scope of the NPCGF. Forum membership could extend to coast guards of other countries in the Asia-Pacific, with the goal of expanding the NPCGF into an Asia-Pacific Coast Guard Forum. Alternatively, both states could propose the creation of a separate South Pacific Coast Guard Forum, and provide organizational and material assistance for its creation.


Despite the current tensions between South Korea and Japan, significant scope exists for cooperation on maritime issues. Through enhanced cooperation on a bilateral and multilateral level both nations have a unique opportunity to secure the sea-lanes that support their integration into the global economy. By taking an integrated approach to these issues, South Korea and Japan can address concerns related to piracy and nontraditional threats at sea, while working to address the root causes of disturbances in troubled areas. As this cooperation is developed, it can be expanded to multilateral forums and help to serve as a foundation for broader regional cooperation on these issues.