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Can Trump keep Tokyo and Seoul united against North Korea, as Obama did?

by Ko Hirano

Kyodo

Amid growing uncertainties caused by the breakdown of the second U.S.-North Korea summit, analysts are wondering whether U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration can foster a cooperative relationship with Japan and South Korea to improve regional stability.

Disputes between the two U.S. allies over wartime labor compensation issues and a December incident involving the Maritime Self-Defense Force and the South Korean Navy have hampered rapport in the three-way alliance. The key to moving forward, it seems, is whether Trump will step in to mediate as his predecessor Barack Obama did in the past.

“The most important alliance management effort that the United States should be taking right now is working to improve relations between Seoul and Tokyo, which may be at their lowest point since the restoration of relations in 1965,” said Kelly Magsamen, vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

“This will require consistent, high-level effort by the United States, including at the leader level,” Magsamen said.

Such calls are climbing, with Trump scheduled to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Thursday in Washington, ahead of a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe later this month before the three gather at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka.

During a two-day foreign ministerial meeting of the Group of Seven in Dinard, France, through Saturday, the G-7 affirmed the international community’s unified front in pushing North Korea to denuclearize, according to Foreign Minister Taro Kono.

The affirmation came after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha of South Korea, which is not in the G-7, underscored their commitment to trilateral coordination in a meeting late last month in Washington.

But since no three-way meeting with Abe and Moon took place on the fringes of the G-20 summit late last year in Buenos Aires, Trump appears to be putting little priority on strengthening cooperation between Japan and South Korea.

Trump instead has focused on engaging North Korea, holding two rounds of talks with leader Kim Jong Un. But their second meeting, held in February in Hanoi, was cut short due to disagreements over the scope of Pyongyang’s denuclearization and the level of sanctions relief that could be provided.

Trump has also been critical of America’s trade deficits with Japan and South Korea, as well as the cost of stationing U.S. troops in both countries. He has repeatedly referred to the possibility of pulling 28,500 troops out of South Korea, a move that would shift the regional power balance to North Korea and China, a strategic competitor to the United States.

In comparison, Obama brokered the first face-to-face talks between Abe and Park Geun-hye, who was then South Korea’s president, by convening a trilateral meeting on the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit in 2014 in The Hague.

At the time, Tokyo-Seoul ties were also at a low ebb over the sensitive issue of the “comfort women,” which refers to the Korean females who provided sex — including those against their will — for Japanese troops in Japan’s wartime brothels before and during World War II.

The Obama administration played a role in getting the two countries to reach a historic agreement in 2015 to “finally and irreversibly” resolve the long-standing issue, as well as to sign a military intelligence-sharing pact in 2016.

“Some are skeptical of whether the Trump administration can address this as skillfully as the Obama administration did,” said Mike Mochizuki, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

“But I think the need to do it this time is even greater than it was during the Obama administration,” Mochizuki said.

Together with heightened tensions over compensation for Korean laborers who worked in Japanese companies during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Washington has grown concerned about deterioration in Tokyo-Seoul defense ties — a development that could undermine U.S. efforts to counter China’s military buildup and rising assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.

Japanese and South Korean defense authorities have accused each other of endangering each other’s personnel since Japan said in December that a South Korean warship locked its fire-control radar on an MSDF plane in the Sea of Japan.

“When I look at who wins from Japan-South Korea tensions, it seems to me it’s Beijing,” said Benjamin Self, vice president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, a Washington institution dedicated to supporting U.S.-Asia relations.