Two separate developments, underway in two separate countries Wednesday, hold keys to the potential resolution of two big-ticket Northeast Asia feuds – the region’s most intractable and newest disputes.
The so-far intractable dispute is the decades-long diplomatic conflict surrounding North Korea’s weapons-of-mass-destruction programs. With joint South Korea-US summer military drills finishing on Wednesday, there are hopes that Pyongyang, mollified, will cease test-firing missiles, tone down the rhetoric and return to the nuclear negotiating table.
The latest dispute is an ongoing export-control battle between Seoul and Tokyo, which looks set to spiral into a vicious trade war between the two Northeast Asia democracies, impacting global electronics supply chains.
In Beijing on Wednesday, the foreign ministers of China, Japan and South Korea were meeting in the wake of recent moves by Seoul to cool tensions, sparking hopes that a diplomatic solution to the spat could be forthcoming – particularly if China occupies the mediation vacuum left by the United States’ absence.
Early indications are that North Korea may, indeed, return to talks, but the Seoul-Tokyo dispute could ascend to new levels of tension on Saturday.
A return to talks?
Following the failure of February’s Kim Jong Un-Donald Trump summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, expectations for a resumption of talks were raised when the North Korean and US leaders held a surprise meeting in the DMZ on June 30.
However, North Korea has since been incensed by summer war games held in South Korea and has carried out six short-range missile tests in less than a month. It has also vilified South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration in high-profile media communiques.
However, since late 2017, Pyongyang has not carried out the kind of long-range missile test that would threaten the US. It also has not directly criticized Trump the way it has slammed Moon. These circumstances have raised hopes that North Korea-US talks could resume now the exercises are over.
US North Korean envoy Stephen Biegun is now in Seoul, holding talks with key officials with the aim of getting working-level talks with Pyongyang’s negotiating team back on track.
“We are prepared to engage as soon as we hear from our counterparts in North Korea,” Biegun told South Korean media.
North Korea has long railed against joint military drills, which it insists are preparations for an invasion. In this, Pyongyang has won an unusual ally: Trump, in his first meeting with Kim in Singapore last year, promised – verbally, though not in the official summit communique – to indefinitely halt major spring drills.
More recently, Trump has also complained about the exercises on the grounds of cost.
The summer drills, which kicked off in early August, were kept remarkably low-profile. The press were not invited to cover them, and minimal public information was released, suggesting – as General Vincent Brooks, the then-senior US officer in South Korea told reporters last year – that the military was giving “space for diplomacy.”
The exercises, which were electronic, command-post drills, also did not include the deployment of threatening gear and personnel. North Korea often bristles when such lethal assets as stealth bombers, aircraft carriers and SEAL teams head to the peninsula.
The latest statements in state media suggest Pyongyang is laying the groundwork for a return to the bargaining table, according to one close follower of North Korean propaganda.
Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst at specialist website NK News, told Asia Times that state media has just switched from criticizing South Korea to criticizing the US – but that, counter-intuitively, is likely a positive signal.
“I think this signals that they are trying to strengthen their position ahead of possible talks with the US,” Lee said. “North Korea has issued tactical statements ahead of [previous] talks, and I think their criticism now is tactical, not strategic.”
A trade war truce?
An ill-tempered trade spat between Seoul and Tokyo has led to both capitals placing restrictions on their exports to one another.
The cycle was initiated by Japan in July in what was widely seen as a calculated retaliation against a South Korean court move early this year to seize assets from Japanese firms in order to pay compensation to elderly Koreans forced to labor for Japanese companies during the Pacific War.
Tokyo insists the forced labor issue was resolved long ago in a 1965 treaty, which came packaged with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and soft loans as compensation.
Currently, although boycotts of Japanese products and travel continue in Seoul, the Moon administration has toned down the anti-Japanese rhetoric and activities in recent days.
Moon largely refrained from Japan bashing in a major speech on August 15 – Liberation Day from Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the peninsula. On the same day, anti-Japanese protests took place, but not on a massive scale.
Also, defense drills around the islets of Dokdo – Korea-garrisoned islets set roughly equidistant between Korea and Japan which are claimed by Japan, which calls them Takeshima – have been indefinitely postponed by Seoul’s Defense Ministry in what may be a nod toward Tokyo.
Meanwhile, much public attention has shifted from anti-Japanese activities to a domestic scandal – allegations that a justice minister-nominee wielded influence to assist his daughter enter a prestige college.
While such issues may raise foreign eyebrows, they excite considerable emotion in South Korea. A similar case, involving her best friend’s daughter, was one of the issues that led to the impeachment and downfall of then-President Park Geun-hye in 2016-2017.
Against this backdrop, South Korean media have speculated that – given that US officials have declined to mediate between Seoul and Tokyo, despite multiple approaches from Seoul – China might mediate on the dispute during the foreign ministers’ meeting in Beijing on Wednesday.
But one expert was downbeat on that possibility.
“For some very mysterious reasons, South Korean media workers have a desire for China to play a mediating role … but Seoul and Tokyo are allies of the US and are in the same democracy basket,” said Lee Song-hyon, a specialist in China and international relations at South Korean think tank the Sejong Institute.
“This is Asian politics and this should be a top-down process. I don’t see any implicit nod from the leaders, so I don’t think this [Beijing meeting] will yield any concrete results.”
Even so, Lee conceded that China had good reasons to step into the mediation vacuum left by apparent US disinterest.
“China is well aware that this is a moment of opportunity to bring the two neighbors close to the Chinese side in a situation where China has an ongoing conflict with the US,” he told Asia Times. “But when it comes to substance, I don’t think anything will materialize.”
Lee may well prove correct. Early reports indicate that Seoul and Tokyo did not manage to find common ground.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-hwa reportedly told her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono that Seoul had not yet made a decision on whether it would renew an intelligence sharing pact, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which is set to expire on Saturday.
“As far as I understand, regarding the GSOMIA, Foreign Minister Kono raised the issue first, and Minister Kang said that (Seoul) is reviewing whether to extend it in broad generalities,” an official at the South Korean foreign ministry said, according to Yonhap newswire.
Seoul has threatened to ax the intelligence agreement in what it considers leverage against Tokyo in the trade dispute. However, two experts writing in Asia Times say that in fact, Seoul has more to lose from a non-renewal than does Tokyo.