So riveted is Trump to trivialities that he all but ignores a serious and growing dispute between two of the United States’ most important allies — South Korea and Japan — even though Trump himself admits that their failure to get along “puts us in a bad position.” “South Korea and Japan have to sit down and get along with each other,” he said plaintively on Aug. 9. In the month since, he has gone radio silent even as the feud between Tokyo and Seoul has taken a turn for the worse.
The current crisis began in the fall of 2018, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of elderly Koreans who had sued Japanese companies, which the plaintiffs alleged had profited from their slave labor during the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945. The Japanese government was outraged. It argued that it had resolved all Korean claims with a series of agreements, ranging from a $500 million economic aid deal when Tokyo and Seoul established diplomatic relations in 1965, to an $8.3 million settlement in 2015 for “comfort women” who had been sexually enslaved. But South Korea’s progressive president, Moon Jae-in, had scrapped the comfort women agreement and sided with Koreans who are convinced that Japan hasn’t done enough to atone for its historical sins.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the grandson of a wartime minister and postwar prime minister who was indicted (but never tried) for war crimes, is one of many Japanese right-wingers who think their country has apologized enough. He responded to the Korean Supreme Court decision by removing South Korea from a “white list” of countries receiving preferential trade treatment. This resulted in stricter rules governing the export of Japanese chemicals that South Korean companies such as Samsung and LG need to manufacture flat-screen televisions and semiconductors — which are used in, among other products, iPhones. South Korea, in turn, removed Japan from its own white list, while ordinary Koreans boycotted Japanese products. A Korean man even died by setting himself on fire in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul.
Moon briefly held out an olive branch to Tokyo with a conciliatory speech last month, in which he said: “If Japan chooses the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands.” But, unfortunately, his attempted outreach was met with silence from Tokyo. So, on Aug. 22, Moon escalated by pulling out of an intelligence-sharing pact, known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement, with Japan and the United States. The move could not have come at a worse time — just as North Korea is testing a potent new generation of short-range missiles that can hit any target in South Korea or southern Japan.
This makes no sense from the standpoint of South Korean security. Seoul probably benefits more than Tokyo from the intelligence-sharing agreement, because it receives access to Japan’s advanced technical surveillance capabilities. Why would Moon do this? In part, because catering to anti-Japanese passions is a welcome distraction from his own troubles, which range from a stagnating peace process with North Korea to a stagnating economy. Bashing Japan is always a vote-pleaser in South Korea — as it was in the United States during the 1980s.
But Moon’s drastic decision should also be understood as a plea for help from Washington. By blowing up an intelligence agreement in which the United States has invested a lot of capital, South Korea’s president is trying, among other things, to get the attention of his distracted U.S. counterpart. I suspect that both Moon and Abe would welcome U.S. mediation to resolve a dispute that both men know is not in their nation’s interests. They simply need a way to de-escalate without appearing weak and thereby alienating nationalist voters in both countries.
Lower-level U.S. officials have done their best to urge a settlement, but their words don’t carry much weight. It would take direct involvement by Trump to have hope of ending this dispute anytime soon.
Trump would have to engage in roll-up-your sleeves diplomacy — but that’s the last thing he wants to do. He prefers to bluster and bloviate — to play at being president without doing the hard work required. He prefers to speculate about the “deal of the century” between Israelis and Palestinians — something that is never going to happen — rather than try to resolve a less sexy but still vitally important crisis in East Asia. While the president tweets and golfs, the hard-won, U.S.-led international order goes the way of Trump University, Trump Airlines, Trump casinos, Trump steaks, Trump vodka . . .