Korea Cannot Hope for U.S. Support in Spat with Japan

      July 16, 2019 13:07

      The government is trying to persuade the U.S. to mediate between Korea and Japan after Tokyo slapped export restrictions on materials vital to Korea's IT industry. Kim Hyun-chong, Cheong Wa Dae's deputy national security adviser, as well as two senior Foreign Ministry officials flew to Washington to meet with officials there, while Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha spoke on the phone with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Korea's chief trade negotiator Yoo Myung-hee is also flying to the U.S. soon.

      But Washington says Korea and Japan can sort out their own mess. U.S. Ambassador to Korea Harry Harris said his government has no intention to mediate or intervene in Korea-Japan relations, while David Stilwell, the State Department's top diplomat for East Asia, said the same during his visits to Korea and Japan. Although the U.S. government claims to be "very concerned" about the Seoul-Tokyo spat and urged them to cooperate, that is largely a matter of principle rather than action. Before he left for Washington, the deputy national security adviser said he would "definitely" request U.S. mediation, but when he came back he said he did not. That was probably because U.S. officials stonewalled from the start.

      In the past, diplomatic conflicts between Korea and Japan were mostly resolved when the U.S. mediated behind the scenes. But Washington is highly reluctant to get involved in disputes between Korea and Japan over their shared history and has only intervened if regional U.S. security interests were at stake. A dubious deal Korea and Japan reached three years ago over compensating former sex slaves mobilized by imperial Japan during World War II was also due to American intervention.

      Now there is the additional worry that Japan sought tacit U.S. consent before imposing restrictions on exports of high-tech materials to Korea. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met U.S. President Donald Trump three times in as many months just before the export curbs were imposed, and Tokyo has been supporting U.S. efforts to keep China's military expansion in check in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and has fallen in line with its Huawei boycott while Korea has sat on the fence. Why should the U.S. now lend a helping hand to Korea, which been at best lukewarm in supporting U.S. interests?

      What leverage does Korea have left? President Moon Jae-in is urging Korean businesses to look for other suppliers and blustering that Japan will in the long term have more to lose from the export curbs, but that will not be enough.

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