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[Editorial] Keep close to allies

US criticizes drills to protect Dokdo; Japan enforces exclusion of S. Korea from whitelist

The US criticism of South Korea’s military drills to defend its Dokdo islets comes as a shock.

“Given the recent disagreements between the ROK and Japan, the timing, messaging, and increased scale of military drills at Liancourt Rocks are not productive toward resolving ongoing issues,” a spokesperson of the US State Department said Tuesday, using the Franco-English name for the rocky outcroppings in the East Sea.

The comment came a day after South Korea concluded its largest-ever military exercise on and around its easternmost islets of Dokdo, drawing protests from Japan, which claims the islets are its territory.

The comment effectively reflects Japan’s position rather than South Korea’s.

South Korea has conducted military drills regularly to defend Dokdo since 1986, and the US kept a neutral position on the islet issue. It is the first time Washington has raised questions about the drills.

The apparent reason for this is South Korea’s decision to terminate an information-sharing pact with Japan, called the General Security of Military Information Agreement.

The US expressed “strong concern and disappointment” and a few days later raised concerns about the safety of United States Forces Korea troops. Cheong Wa Dae said that the US said it understood the decision beforehand, but US officials reportedly dismissed this explanation as a lie. Cracks are appearing in the alliance.

In this situation, Tokyo on Wednesday put into force its decision to drop South Korea from its “whitelist” of favored trade partners.

South Korea-Japan conflicts were sparked by Seoul’s Supreme Court rulings last year that ordered Japanese firms to compensate victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule (1910-1945). Now their aftermath has spread to a wide range of industries.

To resolve the conflicts diplomatically, not by making Japan give in, the Moon administration needs to find a clue by reviewing its diplomacy toward Japan. Anti-Japanese responses regardless are no solution.

After the rulings were made, Japan asked for consultations on them, but the Moon administration made no responses. Tokyo suddenly announced export curbs, then decided to remove South Korea from the whitelist. In a three-way summit of the US, South Korea and Japan in New York in September, 2017, Moon said in Abe’s presence that “the US is our ally but Japan isn’t.” It is hard to view this remark as having diplomatic merits.

Comments by Cheong Wa Dae and the ruling party on the aftermath of the GSOMIA termination seem to be out of sync with the realities. A Cheong Wa Dae official said the decision will help “upgrade the US-Korea alliance.” Lee Hae-chan, leader of the Democratic Party of Korea, said the alliance will remain as steadfast as ever, even without the agreement.

First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Cho Sei-young met with US Ambassador to South Korea Harry Harris in the Foreign Ministry Wednesday. It looked like a summons.

Cho reportedly asked for the US to refrain from expressing disappointment. It was South Korea’s rare protest against its key ally. South Korea-Japan conflicts appear to be spreading fast to the US-Korea alliance.

News reports said Cho also told Harris that if the US refrains from expressing disappointment over the decision to end the deal, it will be helpful to the Moon government’s efforts to build South Korea’s defense capability on its own.

In modern times, few governments are foolish enough to ignore alliance and take its own line in the name of self-reliant defense.

In Northeast Asia of the 21st century, South Korea-US and US-Japan alliances are battling the surging Chinese hegemony and the mounting North Korean nuclear threat.

However, the Moon administration is fighting Japan. It disappointed the US, then told it to refrain from expressing disappointment.

It interprets the Korean situation anachronistically. It stresses nationalism and self-reliance, targets Japan and rallies support in fighting it. It winks at “boycott Japan” campaigns, but remains silent about North Korea’s threats. Then, it is being left alone.

A nation declines if it lines up behind a country it should not while estranging itself from a country it should get close to. If South Korea is diplomatically being isolated, only its people and economy will be damaged.