The United States does not plan to actively play the role of a mediator in the ongoing spat between South Korea and Japan, David Stilwell, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said during a trip to Tokyo over the weekend.
“I encourage both sides to sit down and talk and find a positive way out of the situation,” he said, when asked about possible American intervention in the dispute between the two countries, each of which is a U.S. treaty ally, by Japanese public broadcaster NHK.
Stillwell, who was confirmed by the U.S. Senate last month, is the first non-acting official to lead the East Asian and Pacific Affairs bureau under the Trump administration. His visit to Japan was his first overseas visit.
The United States has traditionally been hesitant to actively mediate between Seoul and Tokyo, at the risk of damaging relations with one or both countries. Earlier this month, Japan announced that it would impose export controls on South Korea over concerns that Seoul was not handling sensitive material responsibly.
Since Tokyo’s move, the two sides have failed to make any progress between themselves. On July 12, officials from both sides met for a meeting in Tokyo, which failed to create any results.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, separately, held consultations with the heads of South Korean technology businesses who might be adversely affected by the export controls; many of the materials that Japan is now withholding from South Korea are involved in the manufacture of consumer electronic goods.
The origins of the dispute can be traced back to last year, when South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japanese firm Mitsubishi to pay reparations for its use of wartime forced labor. The Moon administration supported the court’s finding.
Japan’s position is that these issues were resolved at the normalization of diplomatic ties with South Korea in 1965.
South Korea will take the ongoing spat over Japan’s export controls to the World Trade Organization. On Sunday, the country’s trade ministry said that the issue would be raised at the July 23-24 meeting of the WTO’s general council.
Relations between Japan and South Korea are also bedeviled by other disputes, including a territorial dispute over the Seoul-administered Dokdo Islands, which Japan claims as Takeshima.
Since the 1990s, Imperial Japan’s wartime sex slavery of Korean women has become a major source of bilateral friction between the two countries as well.
A 2015 agreement concluded between the Japanese government and the administration of impeached South Korean President Park Geun-hye on the so-called “comfort women” issue was rejected by the Moon administration.