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U.S. may mediate Seoul-Tokyo spat

July 23,2019
The White House may arrange a high-level meeting between Seoul and Tokyo to help resolve their ongoing diplomatic spat, multiple sources in Washington recently told the JoongAng Ilbo.

The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said officials in the White House have been reviewing options to mediate between the two neighboring countries since last week after Tokyo went ahead with procedures to remove Seoul from its “white list” of countries entitled to fast export processing for strategic goods, and Seoul floated the possibility of scrapping the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Tokyo.

Discussions in the White House on the possibility of playing a mediating role were said to have been led by Matthew Pottinger, the senior director for Asian affairs for the White House National Security Council.

The sources said the most viable option seems to be convincing high-level officials from Seoul and Tokyo to come together to discuss the issue. The sources continued that the United States is taking a more proactive approach because it feared that the diplomatic dispute could lead Korea and Japan to a point of no return, which would break the trilateral defense partnership between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington in Northeast Asia - and benefit China.

One source noted the United States was starting to fear American companies could be dealt a blow if the Seoul-Tokyo trade dispute leads to a disruption in the global supply chain of semiconductor and information technology products, which is currently centered on Korea, Japan and the United States.

Those fears are what appear to have led the White House to send U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton to Japan and Korea this week. Bolton touched down in Japan on Monday, and was expected to land in Korea today, where he’ll stay until Wednesday.

Korea’s Blue House gave scant details of Bolton’s visit to Seoul, only saying Sunday that he was going to meet Chung Eui-yong, director of the National Security Office, on Wednesday to discuss the North’s denuclearization and other “major issues.” Bolton is planning to meet Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha today and is expected to be accompanied by Pottinger during both his visits to Korea and Japan.

Washington’s shift in its stance on the Seoul-Tokyo trade row first surfaced last week after a high-level Korean official said Friday that “all options” are open on the fate of Gsomia, a military intelligence-sharing agreement between Korea and Japan that was signed during Korea’s former conservative Park Geun-hye administration.

In contrast to its previous posture on the trade dispute, the U.S. State Department was quick to react to the top Korean official’s remark and told the JoongAng Ilbo in an email last Thursday that Gsomia is an “important tool in our shared efforts to maintain peace and security in the region and achieve the FFVD [final, fully verified denuclearization] of North Korea.”

BY JUNG HYO-SIK [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]