A dispute between South Korea and Japan is strengthening China’s hand at the expense of both countries as well as the United States, according to leading defense officials.
“I remain very disappointed that both sides are engaged in this,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Wednesday during the first Pentagon press briefing in a year. “We have common threats facing us, North Korea and China, and bigger threats. And we’re stronger when we all work together.”
Esper’s evenhanded remarks reflect a general caution within President Trump’s administration about intervening in a controversy between two of the most important American allies in the Indo-Pacific region. His comments didn’t totally mask U.S. frustration with South Korea, which decided to cancel a landmark intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan amid an emotionally charged controversy over reparations for human rights abuses dating back to World War II.
“It is remarkable how quickly political disputes can push aside discussion of our cooperation and our future progress,” assistant secretary Randall Schriver, the Pentagon’s point-man for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said during a Wednesday speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Schriver sharpened the point during an ensuing conversation, when he suggested South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s decision to withdraw from the 2016 General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan is out of step with the advice of his own defense advisers.
“[W]e have great alignment on our view of the security environment and the growing threat from North Korea,” Schriver said. “I can’t speak to how political leaders might view things, but it does appear that this decision puts a place of prominence on domestic politics ahead of the security environment that, again, we feel we’re very aligned with defense officials and representatives.”
Schriver also confirmed that U.S. officials “were not forewarned” that South Korea would begin the withdrawal from the intelligence-sharing deal last Thursday. That would be a glaring lack of communication under any circumstances, given the major U.S. military presence in both countries, but doubly so given that South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lee Tae-ho met with senior State Department officials in Washington, D.C., just two days earlier.
“This impacts our collective security, and, so, if you’re going to do something like that and not inform your security partner what kind of signal does that send?” the Hudson Institute’s Rob Spalding, a retired Air Force general and China expert who helped draft the 2017 White House National Security Strategy, told the Washington Examiner. “You have to wonder how much they value the relationship.”
Japan and South Korea are cornerstones of the U.S. alliance system in the Indo-Pacific region. Their importance derives both from their economic size and their strategic locations on waterways that are vital for global commerce in peacetime. They have even greater significance in the event of any future conflict with China.
But their relationship suffers from animosity that has lingered since the World War II, when an occupying Japanese military forced thousands of Korean women to work as sex slaves. Japan also required Korean men to toil in Japanese factories throughout the war. That history has driven a decadeslong controversy over reparations, revived by Moon in defiance of a 2015 agreement that both countries had touted as an “irreversible solution” to that issue.
“We do call on the Republic of Korea … to renew that agreement,” Schriver said. “And we also call on both sides to participate in meaningful dialogue to address their differences. Meaningful dialogue means coming to the table with a mindset of problem-solving, not a mindset of airing grievances further.”
South Korea offered to renew the intelligence-sharing pact, which remains operative until November, if Japan lifts restrictions export of sensitive technology. But Japanese officials forged ahead with the economic controls on Tuesday.
“These are sovereign decisions, that both countries are taking,” Schriver said. “Our preference would be that they in fact do remove one another and return to a more normal trading relationship, but there are technical details associated with those lists, and that has to be worked out across the table.”
Those remarks are less forceful than his call for South Korea to change course. That will leave Korean officials thinking “that they’re being lectured to by the Americans that they have to act, but that the Japanese — that any decision they make is up to the Japanese,” Patrick Buchan, a former defense adviser for the Australian government who now leads the U.S. Alliances Project at CSIS, told the Washington Examiner.
The Pentagon leaders’ remarks are sure to strike a chord in Seoul. The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned Ambassador Harry Harris, the top U.S. diplomat in the country, to urge the U.S. to “refrain from public messaging against Seoul’s recent decision to terminate a military information-sharing pact with Japan” in a meeting earlier Wednesday.
“The only way this is going to be resolved is if at the highest levels, the United States calls for a trilateral meeting, that is publicized, and the United States sits down as senior alliance mediator,” Buchan added.
Schriver acknowledged that the U.S. is trying to play a “constructive” role but resisted the “mediator” label. “To be a mediator entails both sides wanting you to mediate, not — sometimes they want our involvement but generally they want us to go explain to the other side why they’re wrong,” he said.
Esper likewise put the burden on Tokyo and Seoul to resolve the dispute promptly, citing threats that all three countries face. “[They should get back to] really thinking about North Korea, in the near-term, and China in the long-term, and how do we work together, how do we broaden our partnerships, strengthen our alliance, and make sure we’re prepared for the future,” the Pentagon chief said.