South Korea-Japan spitting contest is a sign of US weakness

South Korea-Japan spitting contest is a sign of US weakness
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These times are tense, and few are looking to America any longer to save the day.

U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched an embargo against Qatar, which hosts America’s largest military base in the Middle East. The British are quitting Europe. The Turks are buying Russian air defense systems and giving the middle finger to the U.S. and NATO. Hong Kong is boiling, its democracy in peril. China and the U.S. are firing escalating tariffs at each other and seem bent on resurrecting Smoot-Hawley nightmares.

And, now, U.S. allies Japan and South Korea are spitting at each other and threatening to undermine a defense-alliance triumvirate that largely has kept North Korea contained and stood as a bulwark against Russian and Chinese adventurism in Northeast Asia.

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In the past, I speculated that a blanket U.S. security guarantee towards regions composed of otherwise antagonistic nations created a moral-hazard problem. As long as America kept the peace and buffered the edges between neighbors, they could engage in reckless, nationalistic rhetoric that otherwise might be destabilizing and lead to wars. 

Japanese political leaders could flirt with dark nationalist impulses channeling pre-World War II militarist values with visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where the souls of Japan’s military leaders are interred, or whitewashing the horrors of its mass murder, rape and pillaging of the Chinese and Korean people then under Japan’s control. 

Korean politicians could engage in virulent anti-Japanese rhetoric with leaders trying to root their legitimacy in continual replays of crimes by their onetime Japanese overlords.

The same is true of China, whose school textbooks have almost a singular obsession with the Japanese as monstrous villains in their history. To be clear, the Japanese did awful things in Asia and have bad bouts of historical amnesia — but China’s textbooks and TV productions have an overwhelming, distorted fixation on Japan. 

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Overcoming the regional boil, a strong America became the cork in the bottle stifling a Japanese offensive military revival and became the key security partner of both Japan and South Korea, compelling both to become intelligence and security partners with each other as well, despite their historic enmity.

That vital cooperation between Japan and South Korea — which has been so important to U.S. security, as well as to their own — seems to be unwinding now in a particularly nasty spat that rests on different threat perceptions of North Korea and the revelation that America no longer dictates fundamentals in Northeast Asia.

The trigger this past week for South Korea ending an intelligence-sharing arrangement with Japan, called the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was Japan changing South Korea’s export control status with regard to key technologies and materials that Japan fears could sieve into North Korea. 

Because of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s obsequiousness towards North Korea’s Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnKim Jong Un seeks to continue bolstering North Korea's nuclear capabilities, state media says Overnight Defense: State Dept. watchdog was investigating emergency Saudi arms sales before ouster | Pompeo says he requested watchdog be fired for 'undermining' department | Pensacola naval base shooter had 'significant ties' to al Qaeda, Barr says Trump says investigation into Pompeo shows 'screwed up' priorities MORE— in part responsive to the Trump administration’s warm entreaties toward North Korea’s leader to come out of the cold — Japan feared that certain nuclear program-relevant technologies and strategic materials could be exported by South Korean firms to their northern neighbor. Japan did not suspend the sale of these supplies to South Korea. But it did change the country’s status, in trade terms, so that those sensitive exports become subject to itemized licensing and are more closely monitored, to ensure they don’t end up advancing North Korea’s nuclear program. 

The move infuriated South Korea’s political leadership and has escalated wildly. South Korea’s Supreme Court ignored previous international agreements and ordered that some Japanese firms operating in South Korea would have to pay reparations for war-time forced labor. And, despite both U.S. and Japanese pleas not to, South Korea suspended the GSOMIA intelligence-sharing framework slated to renew automatically on Saturday. 

A Japanese government official characterized South Korea’s move as “reckless” and “insane.” U.S. government officials have stated repeatedly that the suspension of GSOMIA would undermine our alliances in the region, result in the deterioration of stability and embolden North Korea, which would work to amplify the divide.  

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said “the decision made by the ROK (Republic of Korea) Government completely misjudges the current regional security environment, and therefore, it is deeply regrettable.” Kono went further, stating that “the ROK Government links their decision not to extend the agreement with Japan’s review of export control toward the Republic of Korea in a context of security, yet the two are completely irrelevant to each other. Therefore, the ROK Government’s argument is absolutely unacceptable and we firmly protest the Government of the Republic of Korea.”

Japanese and South Korean leaders have had spats before and have danced around the contours of Japan’s official acknowledgement and contrition for crimes against comfort women, among other issues. But the stage performance of their tensions usually took the form of swipes at ASEAN or G-20 meetings, or refusing to appear with each other on stage for more than a few moments, as was the case of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe and South Korea’s President Park on one occasion — not the ripping up of a vital intelligence arrangement.

What is increasingly clear is that American leverage in these snitty moments is declining, and that the reality of American strategic contraction in the world means that the buffer between nations with grievances toward one another is quickly eroding. The security blanket that actually allowed these leaders to get away with reckless, nationalist and regionally dangerous rhetoric without paying a price no longer is there.   

Now, words and actions will matter more and carry with them the threat of genuine conflict in Asia. History has come ’round again, and leaders and their citizens likely will have to be reminded of the high costs of conflict before realizing how costly the sacrifice of alliances and stabilizing security deals will be.

Steve Clemons is editor at large of The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @SCClemons.