|Figure Presidential Chief of Staff Noh Young-min, center, speaks during a session of the National Assembly Steering Committee on Aug. 6. Yonhap|
By Do Je-hae, Park Ji-won
South Korea will not look to the United States to be a de facto peacemaker to ease tension between Korea and Japan, a key presidential aide told lawmakers, Tuesday.
In his appearance before the National Assembly steering committee, Presidential Chief of Staff Noh Young-min said "mediation" was not the "right expression" to describe the role Seoul expected from Washington in the Korea-Japan feud over trade and historical issues.
"We have not requested the U.S. mediate in the trade friction between the neighboring countries," Noh told lawmakers at the Assembly. "And we do not have plans to request a mediation also in the future. Rather than seeking mediation, it would be more suitable to say we are looking for 'involvement' or 'interest' from the U.S."
This is an adjustment from Cheong Wa Dae's initial position to use U.S. mediation to ease the rising tension with Japan following its July 4 export curbs on materials crucial to Korea's high-tech sector. U.S. President Donald Trump has said he received a request from President Moon for mediation, but he said the U.S. would only get involved if the request came from "both leaders."
Noh's remarks reflect the reality that the U.S. has limitations in getting actively involved in the bilateral conflict between two of its most important allies in the region. The U.S. failed to play a visible role at the recent ASEAN Regional Forum in Bangkok last week as the foreign ministers of Korea and Japan fired salvos against each other after Tokyo's Aug. 2 announcement to strip Korea of its preferential trading status.
Cheong Wa Dae has confirmed that Japan refused a U.S. proposal for a "standstill agreement" to prevent the bilateral dispute from worsening.
After Japan's removal of Korea from its whitelist of trusted trading partners, 60 percent of Koreans were positive about scrapping the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), according to a recent survey. Some of Moon's key aides, including Chung Eui-yong, chief of the presidential National Security Office (NSO) and Kim Hyun-chong, second deputy chief of the NSO, have said recently that Japan's trade actions have provided grounds to "reconsider" the pact.
"It is true that there are questions about whether is it appropriate to share sensitive military information with a country that has raised problems of lack of trust and security concerns," Noh said. "But up to this point, we have not reached a conclusion on GSOMIA and it is something we are still looking into very carefully from the perspective of national interest."
A ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) lawmaker said that when new U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper visits Korea soon, Korea should declare that it could not share military information with Japan.
"The U.S. has a strong wish to maintain Korea-U.S.-Japan security cooperation," Noh said, adding that the U.S. had not made any official requests to Korea regarding the GSOMIA.
Cheong Wa Dae also reiterated it would take strong countermeasures against Japan's trade regulations.
"Tokyo has made decisions that have shaken the foundation built on painstaking steps since the normalization of diplomatic relations," NSO deputy Kim said at the session. "We will continue to fight the unfair and reckless measures."
As one countermeasure, Korea is considering further restrictions on food products from Japan, citing the radioactive impact of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake. Rep. Pyo Chang-won of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) claimed Japan's radiation contamination from the Fukushima nuclear disaster could be considered a security issue because it could threaten people's health and safety.
The lawmaker pointed out that that Korea should seek information from Japan on the radiation, underlining the extremely sensitive reaction Japan showed to the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 when Tokyo demanded relevant information on the nuclear reactors from the former Soviet Union.