The US is encouraged that Japan and South Korea are showing their first signs of a thaw in their yearlong feud. But it’s unclear whether ties between the two American allies will warm fast enough to save a key intelligence-sharing pact.
The neighbours have a little more than two weeks to stop the defense pact from becoming a lasting casualty of their diplomatic crisis, even as they face common threats from China and North Korea. South Korea moved to withdraw from the agreement in August and it will expire on November 23, unless its notice of termination is withdrawn.
The US has been pressing South Korea to reconsider the move, Japan’s chief government spokesman said. And a brief meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon Jae-in in Thailand has sparked hopes that frosty ties may be warming up.
“That’s an encouraging sign as we watch the relationship improve,” said Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell in a visit to South Korea where he met officials in Seoul for talks that touched on the pact. He didn’t offer details on whether Moon’s government was ready to change its plans.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House also offered little clarity on the matter, saying in a statement it had “detailed, constructive, and future-oriented” discussions with the US envoy and laid out Seoul’s position.
Ahead of Stilwell’s arrival in South Korea, Former Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said that security was an immediate problem and should be treated separately from the overall relationship. Keeping that channel of communication open could even help restore the broader relationship, Iwaya said in Tokyo.
“An agreement showing that Japan, the US and South Korea will cooperate on national security, and have the kind of relationship in which they can even share secret military information, has great symbolic value,” he said.
Moon expressed optimism after his meeting with Abe, their first such encounter in more than a year.
“With Prime Minister Abe, I held a meaningful meeting that could be the start of dialogue,” he said on Twitter. Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, however, offered a note of caution about Abe’s meeting with Moon. “We shouldn’t give too high an evaluation of this 10-minute conversation,” Kyodo News cited Motegi as telling reporters.
Meanwhile, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo told the National Assembly in Seoul that the military agreement should be maintained if it was at all helpful to national security. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was signed by Japan and South Korea in November 2016 and was seen as a breakthrough in getting them to cooperate independently of the US.
South Korea notified Japan in August it would withdraw from the hard-won agreement, raising alarm in Washington.
The Moon government said it had difficulty trusting Japan after it imposed export restrictions that Seoul saw as politically motivated.
Relations between the two Asian neighbours have sunk to their lowest point in decades since the South Korean Supreme Court ruled last year that a Japanese company must compensate conscripted workers from Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the peninsula.