BANGKOK/WASHINGTON/TOKYO – A trade dispute between South Korea and Japan is threatening to spiral out of control, and both governments want the White House on their side.
Now it seems their private messaging has helped spark a reaction from the United States.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said he will encourage Washington’s two biggest Asian allies “to find a path forward” from their diplomatic row when he meets their foreign ministers in Bangkok this week.
Pompeo was due to meet Foreign Minister Taro Kono and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha separately and then in a three-way discussion on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Regional Forum in Bangkok.
Kono and Kang are expected to meet Thursday, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said Wednesday. The meeting will take place on the eve of the Japanese government’s widely expected decision to remove South Korea from a list of countries that enjoy preferential treatment in purchasing Japanese products that could be diverted to military use.
It will be the first face-to-face talks between Kono and Kang since Japan decided to tighten control on exports of some products to South Korea, which has aggravated already fraying bilateral ties.
“They’re both great partners of ours,” Pompeo told reporters Tuesday en route for Bangkok. “They’re both working closely with us on our effort to denuclearize North Korea. So if we can help them find a good place for each of the two countries we’ll certainly find that important for the United States.”
A senior U.S. official told reporters Tuesday that the U.S. is urging South Korea and Japan to reach a “standstill agreement,” to give the sides more time to negotiate further.
The comments ended weeks of relative quiet from Washington. During that time officials from Seoul and Tokyo had tried to get clarity on the Trump administration’s stance on the dispute, which has implications for global technology companies.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Wednesday that Japan has conveyed its consistent position to the U.S. “We want to continue making efforts to gain an accurate understanding,” he said.
But Suga denied reports that the U.S. had urged Japan and South Korea to consider signing an agreement to buy time. Meanwhile, members of parliamentary groups from Japan and South Korea met in Tokyo on Wednesday to discuss ways to deal with escalating tensions. The meeting was held at the request of an association of South Korean lawmakers that promotes relations with Japan, headed by Kang Chang-il.
Earlier this month, Japan announced it would tighten controls on exports to South Korea of some materials used in the production of memory chips and other components vital for smartphones, laptops and servers at U.S. tech giants such as Amazon.com Inc and Microsoft Corp.
The move, which Tokyo justifies as a national-security measure, came after tensions flared over whether Japan has sufficiently compensated Koreans who suffered under Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the peninsula. The Asian nations in recent weeks have dispatched senior officials to Washington to meet with U.S. lawmakers and government officials to plead their case. They’ve also lobbied U.S. media and business executives.
They argue that another trade war in Asia — in addition to the U.S.-China conflict — would only further impede the global supply chain and could disrupt the production of the semiconductors and advanced screens on which U.S. companies rely to make their smartphones and tablets.
Last week South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee sought help from the American private sector and Capitol Hill to get the White House involved in a resolution. Japanese officials are in Washington this week to explain their position, people briefed on the plans said.
It could get even uglier this week if Japan decides to go ahead with removing South Korea from its “white list” of trusted export destinations. A public comment period on the matter ended last Wednesday. If Tokyo moves forward with the plan, hundreds of products could be affected by the removal of the existing blanket approval.
Japanese media said the Cabinet would make the official decision on Friday, and that it would take effect three weeks later.
South Korea is bracing for the impact. On Monday the government-affiliated Korea Strategic Trade Institute briefed local companies, providing a list of dozens of products that could be affected including titanium alloys, gyroscopes and crane trucks.
The same day, Yoo told reporters in Seoul that U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross “fully acknowledges” how Japan’s tighter export controls can affect the global supply chain, and that the U.S. would make an effort for a quick resolution, without further elaborating.
A Korean official said it felt like the U.S. administration and companies shared the country’s concerns with Japan’s move. A spokesman for Ross declined to comment.
According to a person familiar with the matter, Yoo even pitched her U.S. counterparts to include the issue in the bilateral trade talks with Tokyo. Those negotiations are set to resume at the ministerial level between U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and economic revitalization minister Toshimitsu Motegi later this week.
Seo Jee-yeon, a spokeswoman for the trade ministry, declined to comment.
Stable relations between Japan and South Korea form a pillar of U.S. influence in Asia — where North Korea’s nuclear arms threaten regional peace and China’s territorial claims disrupt order from the South China Sea to the East China Sea. Both Japan and South Korea host a total of more than 80,000 American troops, while U.S. carriers routinely ply the waters conducting joint naval operations with the allies.
Wendy Cutler, vice president at the Asia Society Policy Institute, applauded the U.S. move Tuesday.
“It’s encouraging that the administration is finally getting involved,” she said. “A standstill could be a useful first step to de-escalate tensions.”
Cutler said an example of the impact of U.S. influence was when then-President Barack Obama organized a three-way meeting in 2014 with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye to improve relations.
Evan Medeiros, who served in Obama’s National Security Council, recounted the quiet intervention by Obama in a Washington Post op-ed, in what he called a low point in the Japan-South Korea relationship. “Washington is the only actor both sides will listen to.”
In a letter to the Japanese and Korean trade ministers, five of the U.S.’s biggest tech industry groups have said the dispute could cause “long-term harm to the companies that operate within and beyond your borders and the workers they employ.”
Earlier this month, Trump said he’d taken a call from South Korean President Moon Jae-in who asked him to get involved on his behalf.
“I said, how many things do I have to get involved in? Maybe if they would both want me to, I’ll be — it’s like a full-time job, getting involved between Japan and South Korea,” Trump said on July 19. “But if they need me, I’m there, hopefully they can work it out but they do have tension.”