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Biden's Asia policy

Biden seeks Tokyo-Seoul thaw to help end North Korea deadlock

Fractious ties between Japan and South Korea hamper trilateral approach with US

U.S. President Joe Biden, center, has already called Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, left, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. (Source photos by Reuters and Uichiro Kasai)  

SEOUL -- U.S. President Joe Biden is calling on Japan and South Korea to put their differences aside to form a trilateral front to end the deadlock with North Korea.

The bilateral approach of his predecessor, Donald Trump, failed to produce concrete results on denuclearization, leaving diplomacy with North Korea at a standstill. The isolated nation remains a regional and global threat as it continues to expand its nuclear arsenal.

Biden's new administration is seeking to break the deadlock with the help of Japan and South Korea -- two allies with a fractious bilateral relationship. Biden has repeatedly emphasized the importance of strengthening alliances and tackling big issues with the help of other nations.

Biden has recently held calls with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Moon and Biden agreed on the importance of trilateral cooperation involving Japan and the need to improve Seoul-Tokyo ties.

South Korea's appointment of a new foreign minister could be an opportunity to improve bilateral ties with Japan.

During a parliamentary confirmation hearing last Friday, nominee Chung Eui Yong referred to Japan as "a close neighbor and partner for cooperation in promoting peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia."

As director of the presidential Blue House's National Security Office from 2017 to 2020, Chung oversaw three inter-Korean summits and is expected to continue pushing for multilateral diplomatic cooperation on North Korea.

Moon is in his last full year in office, and will likely do everything he can to resume engagement with the North. A key component of his strategy will likely be a focus on alliances because previous efforts at bilateral talks with Pyongyang have failed to deliver long-term results.

Yoichiro Sato, professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, told Nikkei Asia that South Korea's current bilateral approach to relations with the North is hampering broader trilateral cooperation.

"Moon's bilateral dealing with North Korea is not acceptable for Japan and the United States," Sato said. "The best trilateral coordination the U.S. and Japan can hope for is that the ROK will take up no new [bilateral] initiative toward North Korea during the remainder of Moon's presidency."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides guidance on a nuclear weapons program in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.    © KCNA/Reuters

Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an associate professor in international relations at King's College London and KF-VUB Korea Chair, said there is room for cooperation between the Seoul and Tokyo despite existing tensions.

"[Moon] can manage tensions by focusing on areas of common interest such as managing global problems such as climate change in multilateral fora, supporting trade openness, or maritime and cybersecurity," he told Nikkei Asia. "South Korea and Japan could also cooperate in the provision of aid and other economic support to North Korea, which Japanese firms don't want to be left out of anyway."

Ultimately, all three countries want the same thing: the denuclearization of North Korea. Biden reaffirmed this position in a call with Suga on January 28.

To achieve this shared goal, however, Sato argues that "Suga will try to persuade Biden to jointly dissuade Moon from going ahead with his bilateral approach."

The lack of cooperation between Japan and South Korea has made trilateral diplomacy on North Korea practically impossible over the past few years. Tensions came to a head in 2019, when South Korea almost ended the General Security of Military Information Agreement -- a trilateral intelligence-sharing pact -- in retaliation to Japan's export curbs on key South Korean industries.

Pacheco Pardo said: "They [Japan and South Korea] should continue to share intelligence as they are doing, as well as exchange views."

Similarly, Kim Beng Phar, CEO of Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena and former Director of the Political and Security Community at the ASEAN Secretariat, told Nikkei Asia the need for cooperation exceeds any unresolved issues between the two U.S. allies.

"To prevent China from working in tandem with North Korea it's necessary to first have a strong trilateral dialogue or mechanism on how to engage North Korea," he said. "The three countries must also improve their offensive and defensive capacities, particularly by strengthening their theater missile defense capabilities."

He also emphasized the global nature of the threat North Korea poses. "Assuming that North Korea has already perfected its nuclear weapons program, we can't say the issue is simply a 'triangular' problem involving the three main stakeholders, but a global problem," Phar argued.

"The Biden administration clearly wants trilateralism and will press for it, and I think that politically it makes sense for both Seoul and Tokyo to agree to it."

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