Japan-S. Korea feud deepens with disputed accounts of trade meeting

SEOUL/TOKYO • A row between Japan and South Korea escalated yesterday, with contested accounts of a frosty meeting the day before that had failed to make progress on a dispute that could threaten global supplies of microchips and smartphone displays.

Tokyo lodged a protest against Seoul, saying it had broken an agreement on what the two sides would disclose from Friday's discussions on Japan's curbs of exports to South Korea of some materials used to make high-tech equipment, said Japanese trade ministry official Jun Iwamatsu.

Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (Meti) also disputed a Korean official's statement that Seoul had asked Japan on Friday to withdraw the restrictions.

But a South Korean trade ministry official shot back that Seoul had "clearly demanded Japan withdraw its trade restrictions at yesterday's meeting and there should be no disagreement over that matter with Japan".

He said the two sides had discussed what they would disclose but there was no agreement.

"I am frustrated," said the South Korean official, who declined to be named.

Japan recently tightened restrictions on the export of three materials used in high-tech equipment, citing what it has called "inadequate management" of sensitive items exported to South Korea, as well as a lack of consultations about export controls.

But the dispute also appears to be rooted in a decades-old wartime disagreement. It comes amid deep frustration in Japan over what Tokyo sees as Seoul's failure to act in response to a South Korean court ruling ordering a Japanese firm to compensate former forced labourers from World War II.

In the Friday talks, South Korean officials expressed regret over Japan's export restrictions and asked Tokyo to remove them, participant Han Cheol-hee, a trade ministry director, told reporters as he was leaving Japan yesterday.


In response, Mr Iwamatsu, director of Meti's trade control policy division, told a hastily arranged news conference: "We've checked the record of the meeting... We found no clear comment asking for the withdrawal."

Mr Iwamatsu said the two sides had agreed on what they would disclose from the talks but the South Korean official went beyond the agreement. "We believe this is something that affects our relationship of trust," he said.

One reason for the sensitivity over characterising the talks could be a Japanese fear that if South Korea can assert that it used consultations and unsuccessfully sought to have Tokyo withdraw the curbs, Seoul could justify escalating the matter to the World Trade Organisation.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 14, 2019, with the headline 'Japan-S. Korea feud deepens with disputed accounts of trade meeting'. Print Edition | Subscribe