- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2019

President Trump says he’s being drawn into yet another crisis in East Asia, this time a bitter feud over export controls that Japan imposed on South Korea after a court ruling over forced wartime labor.

Mr. Trump said it’s a thorny situation and he’s already got his hands full with North Korea, but he’s standing by if his vital allies in the region can’t work it out.

“It’s like a full-time job getting involved between Japan and South Korea,” Mr. Trump said Friday from the Oval Office.

“If they need me, I’m there,” he added. “Hopefully they can work it out, but they do have tension.”

Earlier this month, Japan restricted the export of materials that go into South Korea’s semiconductors — a move that has sweeping ramifications for the Korean economy and, potentially, the global supply chain.

The Japanese cracked down after South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Koreans who were forced to work for Japanese firms during World War II.

Japan has suggested the export measures are unrelated, yet it is fuming over the decision, saying those issues were resolved in a 1965 treaty over issues tied to its colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945.

The South Korean government says it cannot toss aside its high court’s ruling, citing separation of powers, and it is weighing countermeasures against Japan. For instance, it might pull back from a military information-sharing pact.

Mr. Trump said South Korean President Moon Jae-in asked him to wade into the new spat with Japan, causing the U.S. president to remark: “How many things do I have to get involved in?”

“I’m involved with North Korea. I’m involved with so many things, we just did a great trade deal with South Korea,” Mr. Trump told White House reporters. “But he tells me they have a lot of friction primarily with respect to trade. Japan has some things that South Korea wants and he asked me to get involved.”

National Security Adviser John R. Bolton is set to visit Japan and South Korea this week. Both countries are viewed as core U.S. allies on equal footing, and Mr. Trump has fostered relationships with their leaders.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is a favored golf buddy of Mr. Trump‘s, and the president just gave Mr. Moon a high-profile visit that promised to restart talks with North Korea.

Mr. Trump likely will wait for the right moment to intervene in their trade spat — a sort of diplomatic surgical strike at the moment of greatest need, according to Patrick Cronin, who holds the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute.

“While the United States cannot ‘fix’ some of the deep-seated problems that plague Japan-Korea relations, there is a clear role for a personal intervention to put a floor under a plummeting relationship and offer Abe and Moon a face-saving way back toward cooperation,” Mr. Cronin said. “President Trump wields enormous influence over America’s two Northeast Asian allies. That influence can, for instance, prevent the hasty political scuttling of an intelligence-sharing accord in the security interest of all three countries.”

The trade dispute, which dredged up century-long tensions between the Asian nations, erupted into full view shortly after Mr. Trump’s swing through both countries at the end of June and start of July.

Mr. Trump stopped in Osaka, Japan, for the Group of 20 Summit with world leaders before heading to Seoul. While there, he made a surprise visit to the Korean Peninsula’s demilitarized zone to greet North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, making him the first sitting U.S. leader to step foot in the secretive nation’s territory.

The visit appeared to restart talks between the U.S. and North Korea on denuclearization, which has downstream benefits for Mr. Moon’s push for peace on the peninsula.

Analysts say Mr. Trump will be less eager to leap into the trade mess.

“Unless Trump sees some sort of clear, near-term political benefit to him in prioritizing this issue — which I doubt — he’ll probably do the minimum and then leave it up to other people in his administration to deal with,” said Scott Seaman, director for Asia at the Eurasia Group. “Perhaps the best thing that the U.S. can do is to have Trump simply continue to express a desire on the part of the U.S. to assist both sides — as key security allies and economic partners — in dialing down tensions and getting along better, but not arrange things so that he is in charge of actually leading this process.”

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