By: Our Correspondent

Is it time to junk the security architecture of Northeast Asia, which
has been in place for nearly 60 years, with a new and genuinely mutual
"triple alliance" between Japan, South Korea and the United States? The
three nations have been making tentative but unmistakable steps in that
direction.

Last month, for the first time, South Korea sent
military observers to take part in joint US-Japan military exercises
held at several places off Japan's coast. Earlier, members of Japan's
Self Defense Forces observed similar exercises between the South Korean
and US navies held in response to the sinking of a Korean naval
corvette.

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs,
has called on the two Asian nations to take things farther by hosting
three-nation exercises in the future with the US. Japan's hawkish
foreign minister Seiji Maehara has said that his nation's military ties
with South Korea will slowly increase in response to provocations from
North Korea.

The first concrete steps were taken in early July
when Tokyo and Seoul negotiated their first military agreement following
talks between the two nation's defense ministers. The accords covered
mutual cooperation and assistance in gathering intelligence, especially
on North Korea, and sharing supplies on peacekeeping missions abroad.

These
steps are far, far from being a mutual defense alliance, but they show
the direction things are moving and how concerned the three potential
"allies" are about the provocations by North Korea last year, including
November's murderous shelling of an offshore island, not to mention
North's growing nuclear arsenal. Add to that, growing concerns about the
expanding and modernizing Chinese navy.

But one might ask: are
not South Korea and Japan already allies of the US? The answer would be
yes and no. Washington has formal security arrangements with both
countries on a bilateral basis, but a closer look shows that the two
arrangements are very different, reflecting the security situations as
they have developed since the end of World War II.

The Treaty of
Mutual Defense between South Korea and the US was signed in 1953 only a
few months after the end of the Korean War when the northern invasion
was fresh in everybody's minds. It is a true alliance in that both sides
promise to come to the aid of the other in the event of an attack.

The
US still bases approximately 28,000 troops and other military assets in
Korea. An American four-star general heads the Combined Forces Command
and would, in an attack, assume direct command of both the American and
Korean forces (this is set to change in 2012 after which a Korean
general would be placed in charge.)

Since 2005 the official
mission of American forces based in Korea has changed. The forces are no
longer there just to serve as a "trip-wire" in the event of a North
Korean invasion (in other words, ensuring American help as they would be
in the thick of fighting from the beginning). Under a policy known as
"strategic flexibility," they could be deployed outside of Korea to meet
other contingencies – such as a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

The
so-called alliance with Japan is not really an alliance at all. It is
basically a deal: the U.S promises to defend Japan if attacked, with
nuclear weapons if necessary (the so-called nuclear umbrella). In return
Japan grants American forces bases on its territory to use pretty much
as Washington sees fit in advancing US national interests.

One could see how this works this last fall when the aircraft carrier George Washington
and its escorts, based at Yokosuka near Tokyo, deployed in the Yellow
Sea for joint exercises with South Korea, showing that, unlike Japan's
indigenous "Self-Defense" forces, the American forces are not deployed
strictly to defend Japan.

On the other hand, Japan has no treaty
obligation to help the US defend itself. Thus should North Korea launch a
ballistic missile over Japan toward the US, as it has done twice in the
recent past, the Japanese would not be obliged to try to shoot it down.
Indeed, it would be technically illegal under its constitution.

This
scenario is not just a theory. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
himself has warned that North Korea could possess a ballistic missile
capable of reaching Alaska in the next five years. It is not clear
whether the North has the technical ability to fashion nuclear warheads
on them as opposed to exploding bombs in simple underground tests.

Japan's
pacifistic constitution (written by post-WWII American occupiers) has
been interpreted to preclude "collective defense." That means the
document would have to be amended or reinterpreted in for Japan to enter
into a full-fledged alliance with either South Korea, the US or both.

Far
from being integrated into a single command as in Korea (or Europe
under NATO), the Americans in Japan and the Japanese armed forces might
as well have inhabited different planets for most of the past 50 years.
It is only recently that the two countries have gradually moved to
integrate their forces and hold exercises together.

There are
obvious barriers in Japan allying itself with South Korea, not the least
being lingering memories Koreans have of Japan's long occupation of the
Korean peninsula. The two countries also dispute ownership of a small
group of rocky islets in the Sea of Japan (East Sea to Koreans) called
the Dokdo by Koreas and Takeshima by the Japanese.

The Japanese
too are puzzled and vaguely threatened by South Korea's apparent desire
to build a "blue-water" navy. In 2007 South Korea commissioned its
largest warship, a helicopter amphibious assault ship with the pregnant
name of Dokdo. What use are these amphibious ships in defending
against a northern invasion, they wonder? (The Koreans say they are
useful in peace-keeping and disaster relief).

Shortly after
assuming office last June Japan's Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, issued a
formal Japanese apology on the 100th anniversary of Japan's annexation
of Korea in 1910, which may help ease Korean suspicions. It may be his
most useful foreign policy initiative since taking office to date.

The
American-backed defense and security architecture of Northeast Asia is
now more than 50 years old and was conceived in a different time for
different contingencies. Then the main threat, obviously, was the Soviet
Union and a fear of a conventional invasion by North Korea.

The
threat from Russia has receded while worries over China's rapidly
modernizing military have accelerated, especially in the past year.
Meanwhile, North Korea has acquired the ability to build atomic bombs
and is working on the means to deliver them.