The Ongoing Japan–South Korea Spat Could Threaten U.S. and Regional Security

South Koreans attend an anti-Japan rally near the Japanese embassy in Seoul, August 3, 2019. The banner reads “Condemn Abe regime. Make an official apology to victims of wartime forced labor.” (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)
It won’t be easy, but a workable solution must be found.

The ongoing dispute between Japan and the Republic of Korea may have begun over a court ruling requiring Japanese firms to compensate Korean slave laborers they employed in the 1930s and 1940s, but it has much greater implications for regional and U.S. security, and its resolution is of vital importance.

Japan says the 1965 agreement reestablishing relations between the two countries covers all the laborers’ claims; the Koreans disagree. Ideally, the Korean government would, as a matter of some urgency, compensate the aging workers now, so they can see justice while they remain alive, and then seek reimbursement from Japan using international-arbitration mechanisms. But alas, political realities in both nations make such a sensible solution impossible.

To put pressure on South Korea, Japan has chosen to cut off Seoul’s access to vital elements used to make the advanced microelectronic devices at the heart of South Korea’s thriving, modern economy. Japan’s decision to escalate the dispute by removing South Korea from the so-called “Whitelist” of countries to which advanced technologies can be freely exported will, in the short term, hurt a global marketplace already wracked with turmoil. In the long term, if the conflict drags on, continuing to deny the Koreans access to such technologies might pose serious threats to regional stability and security.

In November 2016, after years of effort by the Obama administration, South Korea and Japan signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), under which the two U.S. allies agreed to share information on missile and nuclear developments in North Korea and other regional trouble spots. The agreement provides a way for data from South Korean radars, U.S. radars based in South Korea, and other sensors to be fed into Japan’s air- and missile-defense system, which protects the country and the U.S. bases there and throughout the region.

As of now, the GSOMIA is a cornerstone of the U.S. alliance system in the region. But the current crisis between South Korea and Japan is already making things far more difficult for American diplomats and military leaders than they were a year ago.

Thanks to the facts of geography, South Korea has real leverage: Radar and other sensor coverage from Korean territory is, as of 2019, vital to the U.S. and its other regional allies. Unfortunately for Seoul, this leverage may not last. Japan is currently building a pair of Aegis Ashore missile-defense sites. When finished in 2023, the sites will provide Japan with a pair of powerful radars as well as with at least 48 SM-3 interceptor missiles. The data they produce will help the U.S. obtain a real-time radar picture and make the Koreans’ data less vital to the U.S. and its allies.

The threat to the GSOMIA should be a lesson to the U.S. that our alliance system in the Far East needs constant attention. President Trump’s policy of pairing maximum pressure with summit diplomacy has at least stopped North Korea’s long-range missile tests and underground nuclear tests, but the threat posed by Pyongyang is far from over. If they are to have any hope of bringing about the denuclearization they so desperately seek, America and its allies must stick together.

The Japan–South Korea spat is obviously more than a garden-variety commercial and legal matter: It stems from the deep disconnect between Japan’s vision of its 20th century history and the rest of the world’s, and thus it won’t be easy to solve. But given the stakes, a solution must nevertheless be found. American diplomats should be prepared to intervene as discreetly as possible, and President Trump should ready himself to become involved if the situation demands it.