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Opinion

2020 look ahead: Japan-South Korea hostilities risk security disaster

Fractious partners need to recognize North Korea is real and imminent threat

Can Abe and Moon pursue a dialogue to reach a new normal?   ? South Korea's presidential Blue House/AP

Often volatile South Korea-Japan ties have rarely before disrupted economic and security links to the extent seen in 2019. Amid a global slowdown and fallout from the U.S.-China trade war, the countries' $80 billion trade relationship has been hit by new rules and boycotts in sectors from electronics to beer. Tokyo imposing export controls on specialty chemicals needed for semiconductors hit the South Korea electronics sector hard.

Similarly, there was almost a dangerous rupture in the security relationship. The 11th-hour South Korean decision to suspend termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement, or GSOMIA, a crucial South Korea-Japan intelligence sharing accord, meant that Seoul benefited from early warning of a North Korean missile launch that it otherwise might have been blind to. The North Korean salvo was a reminder that the two U.S. allies face common security challenges.

The big question raised by Seoul's GSOMIA move, made under heavy U.S. pressure, is whether it is a harbinger of a path toward rapprochement in 2020 or just a temporary reprieve. While it is difficult to see a near-term resolution to the current conundrum, which stems from enduring historical enmity, reason may seep into the two conflicting, emotional nationalisms in the coming year.

This fraying is occurring as tensions mount on the Peninsula. North Korea has warned the U.S. has "betrayed" it by conducting military drills, and that unless Washington makes concessions by year's end, it will embark on a "new way."

Kim Jong Un has called a rare meeting of top party leaders where he may reveal a new belligerent course -- ending diplomatic talks and restarting intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear tests. At the same time, U.N. sanctions are eroding in effectiveness as Pyongyang pursues closer ties to China and Russia.

To grasp the cascading risks if the relationship resumes its downward spiral, look no further than North Korea's warning that Japanese Prime Minister "[Shinzo] Abe may see what a real ballistic missile is in the not distant future." What roused Pyongyang's ire against Abe was his criticism of its most recent illegal ballistic missile launch into the Sea of Japan.

Seoul's threat to end the pact was the equivalent of President Moon Jae-in pointing a gun at his head and saying "Stop or I'll shoot." Nonetheless, South Korea stressed that its GSOMIA reprieve was conditional on Japan removing export controls, placing Seoul back on its list of countries that are granted preferential trade status and making progress in talks on export controls. In a hopeful sign, Japan eased controls on one of three key chemicals essential for the South Korea's semiconductor industry ahead of a Moon-Abe Summit on Christmas eve in Beijing..

Moon Jae-in, center, listens to a report from officials related to GSOMIA at the National Security Council meeting on Aug. 22.   © South Korea's presidential Blue House/Getty Images

So deep-seated is the lingering mutual distrust that Seoul took offense at Tokyo's wording of its announcement that export control talks would take place. One suspects a new round of tit-for-tat actions may return in 2020.

The hope is that this specter of North Korea-induced calamity will have a sobering effect on both sides. But all politics is local: anti-Japan nationalism is popular in Korea, stirring anger from Tokyo's brutal colonial past. President Moon, faced with a sagging economy and a failing North-South reconciliation effort, has risen in the polls playing the nationalist card.

The uncertainty regarding GSOMIA feeds into mounting tensions in U.S.-South Korea relations that could be its undoing. For months U.S. officials have been prodding Seoul and Tokyo to resolve their dispute.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who sees alliances as transactional and allies as free-riders, is demanding that South Korea increase its cost-sharing for 28,000 U.S. troops by 400%: Seoul pays roughly $1 billion a year and Trump wants $5 billion. His demand sparked anger and popular protests in Korea and, in a rare signal of frustration, U.S. negotiators walked out in late November as talks broke down.

As the 2020 election campaign unfolds, Trump may be tempted to make good on his campaign pledge to "bring the boys home," withdrawing some or all U.S. troops from Korea. This in turn raises fears in Tokyo as Trump is also pressing Abe to greatly increase its cost-sharing for U.S. troops in Japan, adding to a wave of uncertainty about the future of both alliances.

In the past, the U.S. would step in to resolve clashes between its two allies. But Trump's "America First" policy has limited the U.S. to urging that Japan and South Korea resolve the problem. The hope for 2020 is that, at a minimum, Seoul and Tokyo cordon off security issues from the broader dispute and pursue a dialogue to reach a "new normal."

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative.

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