U.S. President Donald Trump said Friday that South Korean President Moon Jae-in had asked him if he could get involved in the feud between South Korea and Japan, and said, “If they need me, I’m there.” South Korea’s presidential office has explained that Moon, in their summit on June 30, asked Trump to pay attention to frictions between South Korea and Japan. Trump’s latest comments appear to be signaling his administration’s stance that Washington will not intervene in the matter unless both sides demand that the United States should help. The Trump administration seems to be strategically taking a vague attitude as it is tricky to take sides in conflicts between the two countries.
South Korea should not be too bothered about the U.S.’ stance. Washington’s mediation would be helpful, as it was when the country stepped in to stop conflicts between Seoul and Tokyo over the sovereignty of Dokdo and historical issues in the past. However, the United States will not make a move unless the current South Korea-Japan disputes start to affect its own businesses or interests. Such tendency has been growing during the Trump government with its “America First” approach. High-level U.S. officials and spokesperson within the State Department have made it clear that they have no plan to intervene and it is basically up to the two countries to resolve their differences. As such, it seems unlikely for Washington to get involved in the disputes for now.
Meanwhile, the trade row between South Korea and Japan is expected to escalate for the time being. At a time like this, South Korea should make efforts to strengthen its presence and position in the world while focusing on enhancing the foundation of the South Korea-U.S. alliance. With a planned visit of U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton to Seoul on Tuesday, Washington is likely to put more pressure on Seoul to send troops to the Strait of Hormuz. The South Korean government needs to think beyond the ongoing conflicts with Tokyo and decide how to respond to the matter as a responsible member of the international community and in consideration of its alliance with the United States.
A dispatch of troops to the Strait of Hormuz entails a risk for Seoul to lose both its precious soldiers and an economic cooperative relationship with Iran. Yet, that cannot be an excuse for South Korea to be a free rider as more than 75 percent of exports that leave the strait are destined for Asia. In addition, Seoul must refrain from using the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Japan. Japan’s strategy to frame the current trade row as a security issue by claiming an alleged breach of banned materials is facing criticism in the international community. South Korea, while strictly responding to Japan’s unfair behaviors, should keep multifaceted dialogue channels alive. The South Korean government should first make diplomatic efforts to win the international community’s support.