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Japan-South Korea rift

Senior US diplomat: Tokyo-Seoul split a gift to rivals in Asia

'Not a coincidence' China and Russia probing neighbors' air defenses

Marc Knapper, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Japan and South Korea, speaks during a recent interview in Tokyo. (Photo by Shihoko Nakaoka)

TOKYO -- Marc Knapper, a senior U.S. State Department's diplomat dealing with Japan and South Korea, believes it is essential for the Asian neighbors to maintain their military intelligence-sharing pact despite their strained relations.

If Japan and South Korea continue to feud over the pact and other issues, it will hamper U.S. cooperation with both, said Knapper, a deputy assistant secretary of state.

"Nobody is happy with the situation. Actually not nobody -- there are people happy with the situation, but they happen to be in Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang," Knapper said in a recent interview with Nikkei in Tokyo.

Earlier this year, South Korea decided to scrap its intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, formally known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA.

Knapper called on Tokyo and Seoul to resolve their differences through dialogue. "The United States is continuing to work with both sides to encourage [them] to find a solution, not just for GSOMIA, but for all other issues between them. I think we can play a role as a catalyst to improve relations. But at the end of the day, it's up to Japan and Korea to find a way forward," he said.

Knapper is one of Washington's leading experts on Japanese and Korean affairs, having previously been a senior diplomat at the U.S. embassies in Japan and South Korea.

Japan and South Korea do not have a military alliance but the GSOMIA allows them to share military intelligence quickly with each other and with the U.S.

Seoul decided to scrap the GSOMIA in August after Japan tightened controls on exports to South Korea. The pact will expire Nov. 22.

Knapper called the agreement "an important tool for coordinating trilaterally... especially in a crisis." The three countries have a Trilateral Information Sharing Agreement that provides a framework for Japan and South Korea to share intelligence through the U.S., but Knapper said it was a poor substitute for GSOMIA. "Is not a good alternative, especially in a crisis." 

Highlighting the potential problems, Knapper mentioned a recent incident in which multiple Russian and Chinese military aircraft flew over an area near Takeshima, a group of islets in the Sea of Japan that South Korea controls and calls Dokdo. Japan claims sovereignty over the islands.

"The timing and location of that exercise were not a coincidence," Knapper said. "And this kind of challenge is going to continue to the extent that Japan and the Republic of Korea cannot find a way forward."

Knapper expressed particular wariness of China, saying, "China's attempts to coerce other countries to unilaterally change the status quo" were matters of concern, pointing to the Senkaku Islands and Beijing's militarization of land features in the South China Sea.

"Our three countries are special and unique because of the values that we share -- the liberal, democratic, free market economies -- protected and honored rights of the individual: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly," Knapper said, adding, "It's our responsibility as liberal democratic countries -- Japan, the U.S., Korea -- it's our responsibility to work together to strengthen these rights and protect these... values."

Knapper said improved relations between Japan and South Korea are essential for maintaining the security of Asia. He also referred to the Trump administration's diplomatic response to growing concerns about a weakening of the U.S.-South Korea security alliance under President Moon Jae-in's administration.

"In the next week, two weeks from now, we have an event in Seoul. We call it the U.S.-Korea Senior Economic Dialogue. It's going to be headed by one of our undersecretaries and his Korean counterpart. It's... the most senior non security-related dialogue we have. And one... of the goals is to align again our Indo-Pacific strategy with South Korea's -- what they call the New Southern Policy, and find ways that our two countries can cooperate on infrastructure, on development assistance, on energy, on all these things," Knapper said.

With regard to the Trump administration's stance toward North Korea's nuclear program, Knapper said Washington will keep the pressure on Pyongyang until it abandons its nuclear ambitions. "I think it's clear the United States is fully committed to the final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea and the dismantlement of its missile program. And we will not rest until we achieve that," he said.

The U.S. and North Korea have not held discussions since their working-level nuclear talks in Stockholm broke off on Oct. 5. But Knapper stressed the Trump administration is keen to resume bilateral talks. "The door remains open to diplomacy. We're very eager to reengage with the North," he said.

Knapper praised the recently negotiated trade agreement between the U.S. and Japan as a path to further expansion of bilateral trade. "It just shows that the world's first and third-largest economies can sit down and figure out a way to strengthen even further our trade relationship."

Calling the pact "just phase one," Knapper indicated the U.S. government's interest in cooperating with Japan on the "fourth industrial revolution," including digital commerce and artificial intelligence.

Commenting on concerns in Japan over the Trump administration's threat to slap additional tariffs on Japanese auto exports, Knapper said, "We said, basically, that as long as good faith negotiations remain underway, that no additional tariffs will be imposed. So that's where we are right now."

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