The escalating row over Japan’s export curbs on South Korea should be prevented from spilling over into the realm of security cooperation.
It would not serve the interests of both countries if the unraveling of their security ties, encouraged by the US, results in undermining international efforts toward denuclearizing North Korea.
In this regard, the US needs to assume a more active mediating role to help resolve the spat between its two key Asian allies over the issue of compensating Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula.
Seoul has suggested that a bilateral accord on sharing military information could be at risk of being discarded if Tokyo takes further retaliatory steps beyond tightening regulations on exports of high-tech materials to South Korea early this month.
The General Security of Military Information Agreement signed in 2016 under the auspices of the US enables the two sides to share confidential military information in order to better cope with nuclear and missile threats from Pyongyang.
The accord is automatically renewed every year unless either side expresses its intent to rescind it 90 days ahead of the end of its extendable one-year period.
The military intelligence-sharing pact is seen as a rare symbol of trust between Seoul and Tokyo and a key platform for trilateral security cooperation involving the US.
In what could be viewed as a signal that the escalating row with Japan could affect the agreement, South Korea’s top presidential security adviser, Chung Eui-yong, said last week that Seoul could review whether to renew it, “depending on the situation.”
Another senior aide to President Moon Jae-in came forward later to reiterate Seoul’s readiness to get tougher by saying that whether to extend the pact or not is among “all options” that it would consider in response to Tokyo’s actions down the road.
Japan has warned that it could take additional retaliatory measures against Korea’s refusal to accept its demand for forming an arbitration panel involving members from third-party countries to settle the issue of forced labor compensation.
Last October’s ruling by the Supreme Court here that ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to Korean victims angered Tokyo, which claims all reparation issues with Seoul have been resolved under a 1965 accord that normalized bilateral relations. Japan’s curbs on exports of high-tech materials to Korea was seen as the initial pressure on Seoul to conform to its stance, though it has insisted the measure was taken out of concerns over what it sees as Seoul’s lax attitude toward sanctions against Pyongyang.
To defuse the escalating spat with Japan, South Korea has been hoping that the US will mediate between the two countries.
Seoul officials’ mention of a possible termination of the military accord with Tokyo could be meant to call for active US engagement.
The US would take any move to jeopardize the pact seriously, which it regards as a key institutional tool for trilateral security cooperation with its two Asian allies in countering nuclear threats from North Korea and keeping an assertive China in check.
The US State Department said last week it “fully” supported the Seoul-Tokyo accord on sharing military intelligence, describing it as an “important tool in our shared efforts to maintain peace and security in the region and achieve the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”
Should Seoul choose to terminate the agreement, it would have to make a decision by Aug. 23. As observers note, it may find it hard to go so far as to scrap the pact over objections from Washington.
A disruption in the tripartite cooperation would hamper efforts to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
It would also harm South Korea’s national interests if it is isolated from a new regional security framework being built by Washington and Tokyo.
In his first comments on the South Korea-Japan confrontation, US President Donald Trump said Friday he was willing to help resolve it if the two countries needed him.
It seems hard to view his remarks as guaranteeing immediate US involvement. Trump pointed out he preferred Seoul and Tokyo resolving what he defined as their “trade dispute” by themselves. Japan also appears to want the US to step aside from its simmering spat with South Korea.
Washington should no longer put off assuming a mediating role to help prevent the ongoing dispute between Seoul and Tokyo from further eroding the foundation of the tripartite security cooperation. Any further delay would strengthen the impression that it has acquiesced to Tokyo’s pressure on Seoul.