What the U.S. could have done
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
The Moon administration’s decision to cut intelligence sharing with Japan was a major mistake and fell with a disheartening thud in Washington. The deteriorating Korea-Japan relationship only helps Pyongyang and Beijing, where Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un share one common goal — the steady erosion of American alliances in Asia and the estrangement of the region’s leading democracies from each other. Seoul’s decision has weakened Korean leverage with Pyongyang, Beijing and Washington. Tokyo’s earlier decision to remove Korean companies from the export control “white list” was also a geopolitical mistake. But perhaps the greatest diplomatic malfeasance of all lies with the Trump administration. President Trump’s feigned ennui when asked about Japan-Korea relations stands in sharp contrast to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s energetic role convening a trilateral meeting of foreign ministers to seek resolutions to the Korea-Japan trade fight. It is amazing that the Trump administration — which has made strategic competition with China and Russia the centerpiece of its national security strategy — would abdicate American leadership to China in such an embarrassing way.
Several months back, mid-level officials from the State Department were searching desperately for steps the administration could take to put the brakes on the Japan-Korea breakdown and perhaps reinforce the trilateral cooperation needed to deal with a North Korea that continues to develop its missile and nuclear weapons cooperation. These officials collected ideas from veterans of the Obama and Bush administrations, but as far as I can tell, none were acted upon. To be clear, complete resolution of the underlying mistrust between Japan and Korea would be a task beyond even the most capable diplomats, but here are 10 steps the Trump administration could have taken to at least improve the situation — and did not.
1. Call for a trilateral summit at the G-20. Presidents Bush or Obama would not have attended the G-20 without pulling their Japanese and Korean counterparts together to demonstrate solidarity externally and to encourage greater efforts at reconciliation between two close friends.
2. Convince Seoul to send an amicus brief. The Korean Supreme Court decision was a matter of internal Korean law, but Washington could have encouraged the Blue House to submit a diplomatic judgment that the 1965 Korea-Japan normalization treaty waived such claims. This is something the State Department has done multiple times when former enemies have been sued in U.S. courts for claims from the war.
3. Signal opposition to Japan’s plan to take South Korea off the white list. Japanese politicians and diplomats had been signaling subtly for weeks that Tokyo would escalate against Seoul. They tell me that the U.S. government voiced no opposition or serious concern.
4. Urge Seoul to organize a wiseman’s task force. Former ambassador Wi Sung-lac wrote a thoughtful essay in JoongAng Ilbo proposing that Seoul and Tokyo call a cease fire and that the Korean side form a wiseman’s group to think about how to move Korea-Japan relations forward. American diplomats cannot broker this dispute but could have engaged in intellectual facilitation and pointed to good ideas like Ambassador Wi’s that the two governments could use. That did not happen.
5. Convene a trilateral export control experts’ group. The Japanese government argued that Korean companies were taken off the white list in part because Korean officials had refused to participate in coordination meetings on the topic for three years. Korean officials say the Japanese side was too demanding. Given that the United States shares with both governments the desire to strengthen export control vis-à-vis North Korea, the U.S. State and Commerce Departments could have convened a trilateral meeting to build consensus.
6. Convene a trilateral intelligence summit. The U.S. intelligence community’s leadership has been in transition for the past few months but could nevertheless have brought together counterparts from Seoul and Tokyo to demonstrate the importance of focusing jointly on the North Korean threat before the Korea-Japan intelligence agreement became a political scapegoat.
7. Send former officials to Seoul and Tokyo to urge caution. The Obama administration turned to former senior officials with strong ties in Tokyo or Seoul to help reinforce the administration’s message on the need for trilateral solidarity. Many of us made similar efforts this time but largely on our own initiative.
8. Convene a trilateral business summit. Korean, Japanese and to a lesser extent U.S. business are all suffering because of the Korea-Japan dispute. The Treasury Department, Commerce Department or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce could have convened business leaders from all three countries to convey the damage to our collective economic interests being done.
9. Engage through the U.S. Supreme Court. The legislative branch is independent of the executive, of course, but members of the U.S. Supreme Court have engaged regularly in judicial diplomacy on the advice of the State Department or National Security Council. A discussion by members of the U.S. Supreme Court with Korean jurors on how the United States handles international treaties and agreements under domestic jurisprudence might have been useful.
10. Urge CODELs. The U.S. Congress is also an independent branch of government, but the House and Senate have sent bipartisan delegations to Asia in the past to help seek resolution of diplomatic disputes impacting U.S. security. Because these delegations involve politicians rather than diplomats or scholars, they are often more attuned to the difficulty of navigating sensitive political issues.
Would any one of these steps have reversed deteriorating Korea-Japan relations on their own? Probably not — but taken in aggregate, these and other moves not included would have put far greater pressure on Seoul and Tokyo to seek a positive path forward. The Bush or Obama administrations would have held many hours of interagency meetings in the Situation Room of the White House and spent many hours in consultation with Seoul seeking the right policy mix.
Perhaps the Trump administration is beginning to take this situation more seriously. Assistant Secretary of Defense Randy Schriver gave a thoughtful and balanced presentation on the importance of trilateral security cooperation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Aug. 28. Other U.S. officials should follow his lead.