For a while, it looked as though South Korea might
abandon a critical military information sharing agreement with Japan. Its last-minute
decision to remain in the agreement is welcome news.
Established in 2016, the General Security of Military
Information Agreement enables both South Korea and Japan to share military
intelligence in partnership with the United States. Both countries benefit immensely,
as both face a common threat in nearby North Korea.
In addition to staying in the agreement, South Korea
ended its complaint against Japan at the World Trade Organization. Seoul had held
that Tokyo’s recent restrictions on exports to South Korea were politically motivated
and not compliant with international trade law. Seoul dropped the complaint on
Both actions will generate domestic criticism of South
Korean President Moon Jae-in, since they run against strong anti-Japanese sentiment
in the country. Both actions will also likely been seen as resulting from U.S.
Moon should be commended for putting his country’s
national security above popular sentiment. Moon has taken a significant first
step back from the precipice amid deteriorating relations with Japan. But his
decision is conditional and could be only temporary.
Though denying a package deal, the Japanese trade
ministry announced it will hold a bureau-level policy dialogue with Seoul
regarding its export controls, the first such meeting in three years.
But Tokyo must go beyond just attending these talks
and instead abandon its recently imposed curbs on exports to South Korea.
Japan’s justification for the restrictions does not hold water and was clearly
a response to last year’s ruling by the South Korean Supreme Court, which ordered
Japanese companies to compensate South Koreans who were forced into labor
during the Japanese occupation.
The Trump administration deserves credit for
influencing Seoul’s decision, albeit belatedly and in a heavy-handed manner. The
U.S should have begun more urgent behind-the-scenes diplomacy last year when
Seoul withdrew from the 2015 “comfort women” agreement on women forced into wartime
sexual slavery, and when the Supreme Court released its decision.
Passions have been enflamed, resulting in strained
relations between Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington. This weakens these countries’
ability to respond effectively to regional threats.
It is critical that South Korea and Japan remedy their
security and economic relations, and seek to heal the long-standing animosity stemming
from the brutal 1910-1945 Japanese occupation of South Korea.
Washington should remain involved, but play a subtler role than it has of late.
The Trump administration should also step back from its insistence on 400-500% increases in South Korean and Japanese contributions for the cost of stationing U.S. military forces in their countries. Trump’s demand is exorbitant and doesn’t reflect the extensive contributions both countries make in their alliances with the United States.
At a time of growing North Korean and Chinese military
threats, the U.S. and its allies cannot afford to be at each other’s throats.
Instead, they must stand shoulder to shoulder.
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