- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 11, 2019

A diplomatic headache for Washington — a bitter trade and cultural dispute raging between allies South Korea and Japan — could provide a target of opportunity for U.S. rivals.

China, Russia and North Korea are closely watching the escalating clash between Tokyo and Seoul while the Trump administration hopes to project a united front on issues such as containing Pyongyang’s nuclear programs and Beijing’s expanding military and economic clout in the region.

“At a time when there are strains between our two allies, I think it’s easier for [North Korea] to sort of politically exploit that and try to peel away the two allies from each other and even try to peel away the U.S. from either of them,” Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, said at a forum last week on the Japanese-South Korean row.

A report by Mr. Klingner and fellow Heritage Foundation Asia analyst Riley Walters says the stakes are rising for Washington as the dispute drags on.

The deteriorating situation, they say, puts U.S. strategic objectives at risk: “Japan and South Korea are important economic partners, fellow democracies, and critically important allies against common security threats. Both countries are the foundation of U.S. foreign policy in Asia.”



South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has taken a hard line in the face of growing trade pressure from Japan, suggested last week that Seoul is considering a closer partnership with Pyongyang in order to be less dependent on Japan.

“If the South and North could create a peace economy through economic cooperation, we can catch up with Japan’s superiority in one burst,” Mr. Moon told reporters in Seoul. “Japan absolutely cannot prevent our economy from taking a leap. Rather, [Japan] will serve as a stimulant that strengthens our determination to become an economic power.”

President Trump has said little about the feud, but Defense Secretary Mark Esper made it clear on a visit to each of the capitals last week that Washington fears the fight will prove divisive at a delicate time.

“Look,” he told reporters en route to Asia, “we have really big challenges in North Korea in the longer term, bigger one in China. We should focus on those two things. So I’d ask them to both resolve this issue quickly, and let’s really focus on North Korea and China.”

A fight with deep roots

But a fight that melds economic rivalry, cultural tensions and a tangled and fraught history is unlikely to be resolved soon. At its heart, the move by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to impose increasingly tough trade sanctions on South Korean businesses since the beginning of April is rooted in the “cyclical” conflict dating back to Japan’s colonization of the Korean Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century and the subsequent forced labor in World War II.

Japan says it has made sufficient restitution for that history and that Seoul is violating previous understandings putting the dispute to rest. But many in South Korea disagree, and the country’s Supreme Court ruled in July that Japanese companies owed reparations to forced labor victims, including the “comfort women” who Japanese soldiers forced into sexual services.

Opinion polls suggest majorities in both South Korea and Japan want their leaders to take a tough line. Some 66% of South Koreans said they were ready to support a boycott of Japanese goods.

The government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced July 1 that it was restricting the export to South Korea of chemicals needed to make smartphones, flat-screen TVs and other key South Korean exports. Meanwhile, South Korea accuses Japan of “weaponizing” trade policy in the political and historical battle.

China and Russia poked at the swelling aggravation last month when they flew military planes over a group of islands whose ownership is claimed by both South Korea and Japan. Moscow claimed that the first-of-its-kind military exercise with China was over neutral waters, but Seoul said the planes entered the islands’ official airspace twice.

“If weakness and vulnerability are sensed, people will probe that’s what we saw with the Russia and Chinese testing exercise,” said Patrick M. Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute. “They’re probing to see how well can we react. Are we hurting? Is this affecting our readiness? Is this affecting cooperation?”

The South China Morning Post reported that Russia had reached out to Seoul and offered to fill the gap that Japan’s export obstacles may cause. The Korean International Trade Association released a statement saying that both Russia and Germany were being considered as trading partners.

Mr. Cronin said the U.S. should be taking a more active role in patching up the disputes between two critical allies. The U.S., he said, “cannot afford to be idle because we have many risks including how this plays with other alliances.”

The trade fight has spilled quickly into security policy. South Korea last week floating a threat to pull out real-time intelligence-sharing agreements with the U.S. and Japan and a 4-year-old bilateral intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan.

South Korean military officials have said Japan’s intelligence satellites, radars, patrol aircraft and other high-tech systems have provided critical data on North Korea’s missile submarine activity. South Korean military radars have given Japan early warnings of tests in which missiles have flown directly over Japanese territory.

Pulling back from the edge

Analysts say both sides appear to be pulling back from the edge after recognizing the feud’s harm to their greater interests.

“I do think that even at the height of this tension, Japan does like to have a stable relationship with Korea,” said Yuki Tatsumi, senior fellow at The Stimson Center. “That’s not only in Japan’s interest but also in Korea’s, and also frankly American interest.”

Japan approved the first export Thursday of one of the three materials it restricted last month, but continued delays and the approval process for the other chemicals will still impact South Korea.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was quick to announce that the approval showed “we allow legitimate trade,” the Nikkei Asian Review reported.

Chinese political analyst Da Zhigang, director and research fellow at the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies, said even Beijing recognizes the limits of the divisions that the Japanese-South Korean spat likely would cause and doubts either would break away in the short term from its alliance with Washington.

The quarrel “has not impacted the essence of the U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance,” Mr. Da wrote last week in an analysis for the state-controlled news website Global Times. “Japan-South Korea trade conflicts might somewhat influence the three countries’ cooperation, but their military alliance is still stable.”

Matthew P. Goodman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr. Moon’s threats to work more closely with Pyongyang to replace Japanese suppliers and customers were not convincing.

“It seems a little fanciful to me that, somehow, even in the best-case scenario, an intra-Korean Peninsula economy was going to replace Korea’s relationship with Japan,” Mr. Goodman said.

Analysts agree that the U.S. is better off when Japan and South Korea are working together. David Warren, associate fellow at Chatham House, wrote that Washington’s relative silence could prove costly.

“The belated realization that a worsening relationship between Japan and South Korea has a negative impact on U.S. objectives, and on peace and security in East Asia, comes after a prolonged period of silence on the issue from U.S. policymakers,” Mr. Warren wrote in a recent analysis.

Ill will could linger even if the dispute is patched up.

Officials at South Korean corporate giant Samsung told the South China Morning Post that they were “reviewing a number of measures to minimize impact on our production” from the Japanese supply cutoff.

Mr. Walters said other powers in the region have not given up trying to exploit the situation. “Russia has offered to supply those chemicals [to South Korea],” he said last week.

“Whether they actually can or not is a different question,” he said, “but it goes to show that the deterioration of the Japanese-South Korean relations, codified in this trade tension, is being taken advantage of by potential adversaries in the region.”

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