South Korean middle school students march during a rally against Japan in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. Japan's downgrading of South Korea's trade status took effect Wednesday, a decision that has already set off a series of reactions hurting bilateral relations. The notice reads: "Out, Economic retaliation and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe." (AP Photo/Ahn Youg-joon)
South Korean students march in a protest against Japan. A top Pentagon Asia official said that only rivals would benefit from the two countries' dispute © AP

The Pentagon has criticised South Korea’s decision to abandon an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, as it warned the two US allies that their “tit for tat” political spat was undermining security in the Asia-Pacific. 

Randy Schriver, the top Pentagon Asia official, said on Wednesday the US was alarmed that Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, had halted the pact — known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) — and urged Seoul and Tokyo to ensure that political disputes did not hurt the ability of the allies to deal with China. 

“The United States has repeatedly made clear to the Moon administration that this decision would have a negative effect on not only the bilateral relationship with Japan, but on US security interests and those of other friends and allies,” said Mr Schriver in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank. “I would emphasise the only winners in the Japan and Korea feud are our competitors.” 

The warning comes as relations between Japan and South Korea spiral downward over a political dispute that has spilled into economic and military areas. South Korea last week said it would scrap the Gsomia intelligence-sharing pact, in what was widely seen as retaliation for two recent moves by Japan. 

In July, Japan imposed restrictions on the export of three chemicals that are critically important to the South Korean semiconductor industry. The Japanese government then removed South Korea from a “white list” of trusted countries that are not required to apply for licences to import certain technologies from Japan. 

Tokyo argues that the two decisions were taken for national security and arms-control reasons. But Seoul — in a view generally shared by the US government — says Japan is retaliating because of an adverse South Korean court ruling in 2018 related to a longstanding historical dispute between the Asian neighbours. 

South Korea’s Supreme Court last year ordered Japanese companies to pay damages as compensation for forced labour during the second world war. Japan says any such claims were settled by a 1965 treaty, under which Tokyo paid compensation to the South Korean government. Seoul responded that the decades-old agreement did not preclude individual South Korean victims from bringing their own legal claims. 

While Japan denies that it is retaliating, Mr Schriver said Seoul and Tokyo were letting politics interfere with critical alliances in a way that could pose a risk to US forces. “It certainly appears that these are politically motivated, and we're in a spiral tit-for-tat kind of moves,” said Mr Schriver, a former Bush administration official.

“Certainly what's been done on each side on the export control issue has contributed to the rising tensions . . . the first rule of holes is when you're in one, stop digging. We need each side to stop doing things that contribute to more tensions and start to develop the mindset of how are we . . . going to get out of this.” 

Mr Schriver said the dispute had come up during a recent visit to Seoul by Mark Esper, the new US defence secretary, but that Washington had not been told in advance about the move to quit the intelligence-sharing deal.

Follow Demetri on Twitter: @dimi

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