Biden seen as willing to serve as mediator in Japan-S. Korea relations

U.S. President Joe Biden and his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk-yeol hold a joint news conference in Seoul on Saturday.

SEOUL — U.S. President Joe Biden confirmed the importance of the trilateral relationship between Japan, the United States and South Korea at a meeting with his South Korean counterpart Yoon Suk-yeol in Seoul on Saturday.

Firmly believing trilateral cooperation is essential to address the threats from North Korea and China, the U.S. leader chose Japan and South Korea to visit on his first Asian tour since his inauguration as president. Biden also expressed his strong desire to contribute to improving relations between the two Asian nations.

“It’s critically important that we have a very close trilateral relationship, including economically as well as — as militarily,” Biden said at a joint press conference with Yoon on Saturday.

When asked by reporters about his views on the deteriorating relations between Japan and South Korea, he said, “The fact is that I’ll be going from here to Tokyo and discussing this as well,” expressing his intention to serve as a mediator between Tokyo and Seoul.

“There are ways to deal with some of the trade barriers … we’re looking at [this] very closely right now,” Biden added.

Japan tightened export controls on semiconductor materials to South Korea in 2019. His remarks were believed to have been made with Tokyo’s move in mind.

Cooperation between Japan, the U.S. and South Korea can be described as part of Biden’s lifework, and he has been known as a diplomatic expert since his days as a senator.

In 2013, he visited South Korea as the vice president to then U.S. President Barack Obama and laid the groundwork for the 2015 Japan-South Korea agreement over the issue of former comfort women through such efforts as strongly urging then South Korean President Park Geun-hye to compromise on the matter. In 2017, he also called former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and urged him to implement the agreement.

Relations between the two Asian neighbors deteriorated under the administration of Yoon’s predecessor Moon Jae-in, who was considered to be leaning toward North Korea and China.

In his latest visit to Seoul, Biden showed his willingness to improve the relations because rebuilding the ties between Japan and South Korea is essential for improving the trilateral partnership involving his country.

However, U.S. mediation has not always been effective in advancing bilateral relations. A senior U.S. government official said that Biden is aware of the need for a method that is acceptable to both Tokyo and Seoul.

According to James Schoff, the senior director of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA, Biden is seen as likely to play the role of a listener to both sides without getting deeply involved in the bilateral relations. Schoff said there is no need to rush, and the relationship is expected to improve over time as cooperation in areas such as advanced technology and economic security deepens.