National / Politics

U.S. won't mediate Japan-South Korea row, top American diplomat for Asia says

Bloomberg, Kyodo

The U.S. has no plans to mediate a spat between Japan and South Korea, which are locked in a dispute over history and trade, an American official said in an interview with public broadcaster NHK.

David Stilwell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told NHK that he would only encourage both sides to focus on key regional issues and in particular North Korea. Stilwell is on his first visit to Japan since his appointment last month.

“I encourage both sides to sit down and talk and find a positive way out of the situation,” he said.

There was no sign of an end to the standoff Saturday, after South Korean officials visited counterparts at Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry the previous day to receive details of stricter controls that are being applied to exports of certain materials vital to the tech industry.

South Korean officials who attended the meeting said they had expressed regret over Japan’s export moves and asked for a withdrawal of those measures, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported, citing the officials as saying at Haneda airport Saturday. The Korean officials were countering a Japanese counterpart’s recent comment that the South Korean side didn’t ask Tokyo to revoke the steps, according to Yonhap.

On Sunday, Koichi Hagiuda, a senior member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said in a televised debate on NHK that the “inappropriate incidents” that triggered a crackdown by the country’s trade ministry on specialty material exports to South Korea must have been serious.

The inappropriate incidents included cases affecting national security where Japanese export materials ended up overseas for weapons use, Tetsuo Saito, a senior member of Komeito, which is part of the ruling coalition, said at the same debate.

Japan on July 1 announced it would tighten export controls for specialty materials vital to South Korea’s technology sector, triggering concern about disruptions in global supply chains and declines in tech stocks led by Samsung Electronics Co.

South Korean Industry Minister Sung Yun-mo on Tuesday dismissed accusations that some of the imported materials were diverted to North Korea.

“We believe that the government’s actions were correct,” said Hagiuda, referring to Japan’s decision to take a tougher stance on exports of the specialty materials. “But as Japan and South Korea are important neighbors, it would be disgraceful if this point alone puts the entirety of Japan-South Korean relations at odds.”

Also Saturday, Stilwell said that the form of Washington’s alliance with Japan will “change constantly” amid altering regional security situations.

“Alliance relationships are not static,” Stilwell said at a news conference at the U.S. military’s Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture, when asked about his views on recent remarks by U.S. President Donald Trump that the U.S.-Japan alliance is unequal.

Stilwell said the relationship “will need to adapt” to new threats, citing security issues in “the South China Sea, Indo-Pacific and even in the Middle East,” in a veiled reference to China’s growing clout in the field of maritime security and increasing U.S.-Iran tensions.

“Compared to when I was here in the ’90s, we have a more significant rising power in the region,” Stilwell, a retired air force brigadier general, said. He had been stationed for six years in total at the Misawa base, including two years as commander of the 35th Fighter Wing.

Trump has expressed frustration over what he perceives to be an “unfair” bilateral security treaty with Japan, saying it should be changed, though he denied he would scrap it.

Stilwell is on his first overseas trip since assuming his post on June 20 and was slated to depart Sunday for the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand.

On Friday, he met with top Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo. They agreed to work together for a free and open Indo-Pacific region and toward the denuclearization of North Korea, but did not raise Trump’s recent comments on the bilateral alliance, according to the ministry.

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