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Analysts: U.S. approach 'inadequate' to restore South Korea, Japan ties

By Elizabeth Shim
Analysts: U.S. approach 'inadequate' to restore South Korea, Japan ties
From left to right, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017. Trump's approach to alliances is affecting Korea, Japan ties, U.S. analysts said Thursday. File Photo by Yonhap/EPA

NEW YORK, Sept. 12 (UPI) -- The United States may not be in a position to mediate record-high tensions between its allies South Korea and Japan because of the views and policies of President Donald Trump, U.S. analysts said Thursday.

Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said the president's approach to U.S. alliances represents a setback for key partners in Northeast Asia.

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"Quite obviously the United States may not be able to help," Smith said at The Korea Society in New York. "We have a new president rethinking alliances, whether they are in the U.S. interest or not."

Amb. Thomas Hubbard, chairman of Korea Society, said past U.S. administrations took a more active approach to handling bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo, including during the Bush administration, when he served his term as U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

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"We tended to pick up on [Korea-Japan tensions] quickly," Hubbard said. "The Trump administration has been somewhat slow on the uptake."

Hubbard, who also served as the top U.S. diplomat to the Philippines, said the president has "minimized" U.S. capabilities for helping Asian allies.

"The way Trump has used tariffs [in the China trade dispute] as a means of solving other problems has made us less holy, less pure on these issues," Hubbard said.

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Tensions between Korea and Japan reached new heights after South Korea's Supreme Court ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation for forced labor victims during wartime. A few days later, Japan said key chemical exports used in South Korean tech manufacturing would be restricted, then took retaliation one step further weeks later, with the removal of Seoul from a "white list" of preferred trading partners.

South Korea, in response, said it would not renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, a bilateral intelligence sharing deal with Japan.

Hubbard and Smith said the decision is a disappointment, and has an impact on U.S. security.

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"The Korean decision on GSOMIA was a very unfortunate one," Hubbard said.

Smith said the intelligence sharing was "absolutely crucial" in 2017, when North Korea was testing intercontinental ballistic missiles and threatening the U.S. territory of Guam.

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"The two alliances were quite synchronized in 2017, and respectable of the sensitivities of South Korea," she said. "Every Japanese policymaker, the Japanese public, realizes Korea is very important to national security."

Hubbard said GSOMIA represented a "very strong piece" of the trilateral relationship; in 2016, during the Obama administration, the United States brokered the agreement, which was signed under former South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

GSOMIA strengthened U.S. forces' ability to operate in Asia, he added.

Bad blood between Korea and Japan, rooted in a history of colonization that included forced labor during wartime and the mobilization of Korean "comfort women" who were often raped and assaulted in Japanese military brothels, is nothing new.

What has changed is the loss of "common cause" among the United States, Japan and Korea, Smith said.

"That balance has eroded considerably."

The loss of balance is a concern among South Koreans, particularly top business executives in Seoul who rely on decades-long stability to deliver results for their companies and shareholders, Hubbard said.

South Korean opinion of President Moon Jae-in's Japan policies is not monolithic, and "big business leaders" have asked the former U.S. diplomat for answers.

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"They've asked me, 'Can't you solve this problem for us?'"

Smith said South Korea has changed significantly, with new developments in the courts and the executive branch.

"The institutional dynamics of Korean democracy is shifting," she said. "Courts are asserting themselves over executive decisions."

Hubbard said key differences remain between the two Asian economies because of South Korea's transition to democracy. Under past presidents, courts were manipulated, he added.

"The Japanese, because of their very different democratic experience, have failed to realize the power of democracy today," the former ambassador said.

"This is not your grandfather's South Korea."

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