By Lee Haye-ah
WASHINGTON, July 12 (Yonhap) -- The United States has been seen trying to mediate a growing trade dispute between South Korea and Japan without getting heavily involved in the political blame game.
While the U.S. recognizes the importance of trilateral cooperation in facing the threat of North Korea's nuclear weapons program and China's rise, it appears that Washington is cautious not to offend either ally.
A South Korean presidential official told reporters this week that the U.S. offered to convene a trilateral high-level meeting during a trip to the region by David Stilwell, the new top U.S. diplomat for East Asia. Japan has yet to respond, he said.
At a press briefing on Thursday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus expressed a commitment to improving ties that was seen as more proactive than previous statements from the department.
"The United States and of course here at the State Department, we're going to do everything we can to pursue ways to strengthen our relationships between and amongst all three countries, both publicly and behind the scenes," she said.
The series of remarks and actions coincided with a flurry of diplomacy by South Korean officials with their U.S. counterparts to raise awareness of the global economic and political implications of Japan's new export curbs against the South.
The presidential official, Kim Hyun-chong, held meetings with acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Deputy National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman, as well as members of Congress.
According to Kim, the U.S. side expressed a desire for the two countries to resolve the dispute in a "constructive" manner, but he withheld details of the discussions.
A director-general from South Korea's foreign ministry was holding meetings in Washington with State Department counterparts around the same time. He told reporters the U.S. officials understood the seriousness of the situation.
And South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha was on the phone with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo while on a trip to Ethiopia to, among other things, raise the issue of Japan's export restrictions. Pompeo expressed his "understanding" of Seoul's position, according to the ministry.
Others made it clear that they had no plans to play a role between Seoul and Tokyo.
In an interview with Japanese broadcaster NHK, Stilwell expressed concern about the tensions but denied any plans to mediate.
U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris also told a South Korean opposition lawmaker that "now is not the time" for the U.S. to insert itself between the two countries and expressed no desire by the U.S. government to arbitrate.
James Schoff, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Yonhap News Agency: "At this point, I think the most important role for the U.S. is to facilitate communication and express to both sides how important it is to move this discussion off the front pages of the political realm and into a more professional bureaucratic process, so that legitimate concerns can be addressed without public accusations and then the need to defend them."
He said the U.S. can talk to both sides at a high level and offer to convene a trilateral dialogue, but it does not need to force it.
"I don't think the U.S. can force any kind of settlement between the two, and the U.S. cannot choose sides," Schoff said. "I think it can only facilitate communication at a high level, which I hope is happening behind the scenes, but I don't see evidence of it in public at the moment."
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