The United States, which has been taking a wait-and-see approach in South Korea-Japan trade dispute, reportedly called on both countries to exercise restraint. According to a report by Reuters, the U.S. urged South Korea and Japan to consider signing a “standstill agreement.” The Asahi Shimbun of Japan also reported that the U.S. urged Japan to not make any decisions with regard to removing South Korea from its “white list” that was scheduled to be decided as early as Friday while asking South Korea to not sell off Mitsubishi assets. Furthermore, the U.S. suggested that the two countries meet at a third country and resolve the issue through discussion. It seems the U.S. is trying to forestall any further actions from the two countries and buy time for negotiations.
Both Seoul and Tokyo are not commenting on whether Washington actually suggested such measure or what is their take on it. If they really received such proposal, it is in line with public sentiment in and outside the country that the two countries should step back and seek dialogue. The Japanese government is expected to decide whether to drop South Korea from its white list of countries that enjoy minimum trade restrictions at a Cabinet meeting on Friday. There are rising voices within South Korea that it should scrap the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), its military information sharing deal, if Japan removes South Korea from its “white list.” The U.S. appears to be stepping in and suggesting that both countries take a cooling-off period as diplomatic conflict between the two countries has grown into a trade dispute and is now showing signs of disrupting military alliance.
Foreign ministers from the U.S. and Japan are meeting Thursday at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bangkok. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters inside a plane heading to Bangkok that he will encourage South Korea and Japan to find a path forward, hinting at playing a mediator role to improve South Korea-Japan relations. But the U.S.’ role in this dispute is only providing a forum for dialogue. It is South Korea and Japan that should resolve the dispute by themselves. It would be hard for the U.S. to side with one party in this feud.
To be sure, signing a “standstill agreement” would not resolve thorny issues between the two countries, such as wartime forced labor and Japan’s retaliatory export restrictions. But it would do more good than harm for the two countries to take time to cool off and find ways to resolve the situation. At the upcoming meeting between foreign ministers, Seoul and Tokyo should refrain from causing a dispute and take the basic approach in diplomatic negotiationsㅡthrowing a sprat to catch a mackerelㅡto settle the current conflict.