S. Korea, Japan relations ‘critical’ to U.S.: Knapper

November 13, 2020

 A good relationship between South Korea and Japan is critical to the United States in dealing with threats against shared values such as democracy and freedom of speech, a senior U.S. diplomat said Friday.

Marc Knapper, deputy U.S. assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan, also said his country is working “very hard” to help improve Seoul-Tokyo relations, though its efforts may not be visible to the public.

“The Japan-South Korea relationship is of critical importance to the United States because, getting back to what I said before, these are two democracies — liberal, transparent countries — that do the kind of work that we do in the United States. If we three countries don’t stand up for democracy, if we don’t stand up for freedom, then who will?” he said in a webinar hosted by the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

Knapper joined the virtual seminar from Seoul, where he has been visiting since last Thursday (Seoul time).

The relationship between Seoul and Tokyo has steadily deteriorated since July 2018, when Japan imposed restrictions on South Korea-bound shipments of three key industrial materials used to produce semiconductors, South Korea’s single-largest export item.

The move was seen as an attempt to retaliate against a Seoul court ruling that ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation to Koreans forced into free labor during Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea.

Seoul is currently seeking to mend its ties with Tokyo following the recent change in political leadership in Japan to new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

The U.S., as a close ally to both South Korea and Japan, was earlier expected to help mediate the dispute, but refused to get in the middle.

Knapper said that did not mean the U.S. does not care.

“The United States, we don’t presume to find a way to get in the middle, or to mediate. This is up to Japan and Korea to do. At the same time though, it does not mean that we don’t care, does not mean that we’re not interested. We are. We do care. We are interested,” he insisted.

He noted what the U.S. does to help may not always be visible to the public.

“And very often we do things that aren’t apparent to the press. We do things that aren’t apparent to the public. But nonetheless, we are working very hard with our allies, with our friends in Tokyo and Seoul, to try and find a way to glue our three countries forward because we have to,” he told the webinar.

“If you look at the region, it’s just our countries share these values and we share democracy and freedom of speech and religion and things that are under threat. These things are under threat. If we don’t stand up for it, who will? and so we really have to figure things out,” added Knapper.

The U.S. diplomat said such threats come largely from China, but insisted the U.S. is not pressuring any country to choose sides.

“We know that Japan and South Korea have very complex and nuanced relationships with China,” said Knapper. “We’re not asking South Korea, we are not asking Japan to cut off or contain China.”

“But I really do think that it is a responsibility of countries like the United States, countries like South Korea, countries like Japan to accept the responsibility of speaking out on behalf democracy, speaking out on behalf of freedom,” he added.

Knapper also expressed hope for a resumption of denuclearization dialogue with North Korea.

“Our message, our public message and in private is that the door to diplomacy remains open,” he said.

“I can’t speak about what’s going to happen in a couple months, but at this moment today, we still sincerely hope to be able to implement and actualize the spirit of the Singapore statement,” he added, referring to the joint statement issued by U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at their first bilateral summit, held in Singapore in June 2018.

Under the joint statement, the communist state agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for a security guarantee.

The denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang, however, have stalled since the second Trump-Kim summit, held in Hanoi in February 2019, ended without a deal.