• Kyodo, Bloomberg

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The United States was not forewarned of South Korea’s recent decision to terminate a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan that helps the U.S. allies counter missile threats from North Korea, a senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday.

Noting that there have been “consultations” over the issue, Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said at a Washington think tank, “In terms of the actual decision to not renew (the pact), we were not forewarned.”

Later in the day, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper urged Japan and South Korea to end their escalating feud, in the latest indication that the Trump administration was concerned that the spat was damaging America’s regional alliance network.

Esper said Wednesday he was disappointed by the dispute. The administration issued the unusually blunt rebuke, even though the South Korean government had earlier in the day urged the U.S. to tone down its criticism.

“I was, and remain, very disappointed that both parties are engaged in this,” Esper said. His remarks were the highest-level U.S. comments on the matter since Seoul’s decision.

“I expressed that to my counterparts as I met with them in Tokyo and Seoul. And of course, encouraged them, urged them to work it out between them.”

South Korea’s decision shows the growing stakes for the feud between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which has escalated from diplomatic sniping to trade measures that could threaten global supply chains. While the impact of withdrawing from the intelligence pact wasn’t clear, it underscored the hurdles that Washington faces in getting the countries to work together on regional security initiatives.

Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said in Washington that adversaries may be trying to take advantage of the fissure. A recent joint air patrol by Russia and China was “a direct challenge to our three countries in an attempt to take advantage of the current frictions in relations,” he said, adding, “It is critical, now more than ever, to ensure that there are strong and close relations between and among our three countries.”

Earlier Wednesday, Seoul summoned the Japanese ambassador to South Korea for discussions and sought for Washington to refrain from public comments over Seoul’s decision to withdraw from the intelligence pact. Vice Foreign Minister Cho Sei-young delivered the request personally to U.S. Ambassador Harry Harris, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported Wednesday, citing a source.

“‘Disappointment’ is a diplomatic expression that the United States uses publicly when there are policy differences with an ally or a partner,” South Korean presidential security adviser Kim Hyun-chong said at a news briefing Wednesday, adding that dropping out of the deal gives Seoul an opportunity to upgrade its military alliance with the U.S. by “taking the initiative in strengthening our own capabilities.”

Signed in November 2016, GSOMIA was facing a deadline last Saturday for either side to give written notification of their intent to pull out. South Korea said Thursday it had decided to scrap the agreement, setting the stage for its expiration on Nov. 22.

Schriver said GSOMIA has allowed the two countries to share sensitive intelligence information directly and in a timely way, with the U.S. otherwise having to act as an intermediary passing information back and forth between the two parties.

“We emphasize the only winners when Japan and Korea feud are our competitors,” the official warned.

He also called on both South Korea and Japan to engage in “meaningful” dialogue to address their differences, which he said means that the two should come to the table with “a mindset of problem-solving, not with a mindset of airing grievances further.”

Tokyo and Seoul have seen their bilateral ties worsen over South Korean court rulings last year ordering compensation for people they recognized as victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

An alleged radar lock-on incident involving a Japanese patrol plane and a South Korean warship last year also fueled tension, and spilled over to trade issues, with Japan implementing tighter controls in July on exports of some materials needed by South Korean manufacturers of semiconductors and display panels.

On Wednesday, Japan removed South Korea from a list of countries that enjoy minimum trade restrictions on goods such as electronic components that can be diverted for military use. South Korea said in mid-August that it will take similar measures, apparently in retaliation.

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