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U.S. tut-tuts recent Dokdo drills

State Department claims the exercises were not ‘productive’
Aug 29,2019
The U.S. State Department Tuesday called Korea’s recent Dokdo drills not “productive,” taking into consideration escalated tensions between Seoul and Tokyo.

On Sunday and Monday, Korea staged its largest-scale military exercise on and around its easternmost Dokdo islets, which Japan also claims and calls Takeshima. The two-day drills in the East Sea came just days after Seoul decided that it would not renew a bilateral military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo, a response to new export regulations by Japan.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said in a statement, “Given the recent disagreements between [Korea] and Japan, the timing, messaging, and increased scale of military drills at Liancourt Rocks are not productive toward resolving ongoing issues.”

Korea effectively controls Dokdo, also referred to as Liancourt Rocks, and maintains that there is no territorial dispute over the islets in the East Sea as it is considered Korean territory, historically, geographically and under international law.

It is rare for Washington to issue a statement on the Dokdo drills, which are regularly protested by Tokyo.

Korea’s drills around the Dokdo islets are held twice a year. This summer’s exercise was pushed back amid tensions with Japan. The drills were renamed this year the East Sea Territory Protection Exercise and came after a Russian warplane violated Korean airspace in the area last month.

Seoul’s Defense Ministry has maintained that the drills do not target any particular country.

The U.S. spokesperson said that the “question of the sovereignty of these islands is for the ROK and Japan to resolve peacefully,” saying that the United States does not take a position on the matter.

Japan has been protesting Korean Supreme Court rulings last year ordering Japanese companies to compensate victims of forced labor during World War II. The rulings acknowledged the illegality of Japan’s colonial rule over Korea, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. Starting in early July, Japan implemented export regulations on Korea. On Wednesday, Japan removed Korea from a so-called white list of preferred trading partners, citing unsubstantiated security concerns and a breach of “trust.”

Washington encourages the two countries to have “committed, sincere discussions on resolving these disputes,” according to the spokesperson. The United States has been openly critical of Korea’s decision a week ago to terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson again voiced regret that Korea decided to scrap the Gsomia, telling the Voice of America on Tuesday, “We made very clear to the ROK government, regularly and at very high levels, that it was in U.S. national interests for the ROK to remain in Gsomia.”

Washington has been an advocate of trilateral security cooperation with Seoul and Tokyo, its two major allies in the region.

The Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Blue House have said they communicated regularly and exhaustively with Washington on the situation leading to the Gsomia termination, a decision reached by the Blue House National Security Council on Aug. 22 after determining that sharing sensitive military information with Japan does not serve Korea’s national interest.

This State Department spokesperson, however, said that the United States “never expressed its understanding of the decision,” despite reports otherwise. The spokesperson again expressed Washington’s “strong concern and disappointment that the Moon administration has withheld its renewal” of the Gsomia with Japan.

Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young called in U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris Wednesday afternoon to discuss the Gsomia termination decision and Korea-Japan relations, according to the Foreign Ministry. Cho conveyed that the Gsomia decision “was decided in the context of Korea-Japan relations,” adding that it is the “intent” of Seoul to upgrade efforts toward the Korea-U.S. alliance. A source said that Cho requested Washington to “refrain” from public remarks expressing disappointment with Seoul over the Gsomia decision, adding Korea understands the U.S. view, and addressed the State Department’s remarks on the Dokdo drill.

Reuters quoted a senior U.S. State Department official as telling reporters on Tuesday, “I keep thinking we have reached rock bottom and then keep getting surprised,” on Korea and Japan’s relations. This official said that both countries share blame, pointing out that the dispute is one “between leaders on both sides,” and that “unhelpful choices” have been made on both sides. Washington is “still actively engaged in trying to get them now to start rebuilding this relationship,” according to this official.

The dispute between Seoul and Tokyo “pretty much damaged the possibility” of continuing the Gsomia, added the official, who pointed out that there still may be “opportunities to hopefully recover.”

But referring to the Dokdo drills, this official warned that “the most recent action on the part of Seoul directly affects U.S. security interests.”

He added that the exercises weren’t “particularly helpful” and “exacerbates” the problem.

The official called on both sides to “allow things to settle down and then earnestly get back” to negotiations to resolve their differences.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]