Cooperation with Korea's Allies Fraying at the Seams

  • By Lee Ha-won, Cho Yi-jun, Ahn Jun-yong

    January 07, 2019 13:31

    Alarm bells are ringing for once rock-solid cooperation in Northeast Asia between South Korea, Japan as the U.S. as Washington increasingly sees Korea's defense as a business transaction and the two immediate neighbors are constantly at each other's throats.

    Washington worries about the fast pace of inter-Korean reconciliation while at the same time demanding more money to keep U.S. troops here. At the same time spats between Seoul and Tokyo about historical issues are escalating by the week.

    Tokyo is peeved that South Korea's Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to compensate former Korean forced laborers, while Seoul effectively iced a murky agreement over compensation for Korean wartime sex slaves.

    Matters came to a head with a spat over a South Korean Navy destroyer pointing a fire-control radar at a Japanese spy plane that flew overhead near Korean islets that Japan covets.

    The forced-labor victims here have threatened to ask courts to seize the assets of Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal unless they pay the compensation as ordered. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told NHK on Sunday, "I directed related ministries to consider specific measures based on international law to show our resolute stance."

    In the radar spat, the government here created its own video in eight languages to show what was actually happened, in response to Japan's international publicity campaign through a video which it says was "distorted" to represent its claims.

    Taking an alarmist view of the fraying South Korea-U.S. alliance was David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Writing on U.S. political website The Hill last Friday, he said President Moon Jae-in "will almost certainly ask [U.S. President Donald Trump] to meet him in the middle, and it's unclear whether Trump will accept anything less than 100 percent. If he doesn't, U.S. troops may soon be departing from the Korean Peninsula. It would be a tragic and abrupt end" to the strategic alliance.

    The two countries have failed to fix a schedule for more talks after failing to agree on a new cost-sharing agreement for the upkeep of the U.S. Forces Korea.

    The Diplomat magazine also wrote last Friday, "While the previous renegotiations in 2013 also ran past the end-of-year deadline, the prospects of both sides once again reaching an agreement in January appear slim. Not only are both countries still quite far apart on what the final deal should look like, but there are a number of other possible complicating factors." "The most significant cost of the stalled negotiations is the erosion of trust in the United States as a reliable security partner."

    If Seoul refuses to increase its share, "Trump could conceivably singlehandedly announce a troop drawdown at the second summit [with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un] as a goodwill gesture to Pyongyang," it added.

    Shin Beom-chul of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies was equally alarmed. "The trilateral security alliance is shaking as the leaders of the U.S. and Japan are pushing their own national interests. But the South Korean government is looking away with an eye on North Korea," Shin said. "Seoul could end up being the biggest loser."

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