South Korea-Japan talks falter ahead of decision on favoured-trade list

The meeting was the highest-level talks since Japan tightened curbs last month on exports to South Korea of high-tech materials. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK (REUTERS) - South Korea called on Thursday (Aug 1) for Japan to allow more time for diplomacy as talks on their most serious dispute in years failed to make progress, a day before Japan could remove South Korea from its list of favoured trade partners.

South Korea's Foreign Minister warned on Thursday that if Japan removes South Korea from its list of countries with minimum trade restrictions, Seoul would have to review bilateral security cooperation.

Relations between Japan and South Korea, plagued by bitterness over Japan's 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula, are arguably at their lowest since they normalised ties in 1965.

A spiralling row over the past month is threatening to disrupt the global supply of semiconductors and undercut security cooperation on North Korea.

South Korea's Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha held talks with her Japanese counterpart Taro Kono on the sidelines of a South-east Asia conference in Bangkok on Thursday.

The meeting was the highest-level talks since Japan tightened curbs last month on exports to South Korea of high-tech materials, accusing its neighbour of inadequate management of sensitive items.

The export restrictions came as Japan was already angry about a South Korean court ruling last year Japanese firms had to pay compensation to South Koreans forced to work in Japanese factories during Japan's occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. Japan says a settlement has already been reached.

Thursday's talks yielded little progress, with a South Korean foreign ministry official saying there was "virtually no change" in Japan's stance.

Japan is expected to drop South Korea from its white list of countries that enjoy smooth trade. A South Korean ministry official said it was "highly likely" to happen on Friday (Aug 2).

Kang said she urged Kono to stop that process or it would force South Korea to craft countermeasures.

South Korean officials have warned they may reconsider an intelligence sharing accord with Japan if the feud worsens.

The bilateral accord, known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), is automatically renewed every August. It is chiefly aimed at countering North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.

"As Japan cited security reasons for its trade restrictions, I said we will have no option but to review the various elements that form the framework of security cooperation with Japan," Kang told reporters, when asked whether South Korea would keep the GSOMIA if it was dropped from the Japanese list.

"I made it clear that we need the time and room to make efforts to find a way to resolve the issue through consultations."

There was no immediate comment from Japan's foreign ministry.

A Japanese government source said that Tokyo's stance was to try to keep the trade and history dispute separate from security matters, including the renewal of the GSOMIA.

Japan's Kyodo news agency reported Kono had asked South Korea to take steps to prevent any damage to the Japanese firms ordered to pay compensation to former labourers.

Japan says the issue of compensation for its wartime actions had been settled by a 1965 treaty and it asked South Korea to seek international arbitration to resolve the dispute.

The 55-minute talks began with a frosty greeting. Both Kang and Kono appeared stony-faced as they shook hands, and Kang focused on reviewing documents she brought before making opening remarks, shunning eye contact.

Any change in security cooperation between Japan and South Korea would likely worry the United States, which played a key role in initiating the hard-won GSOMIA, which facilitates three-way intelligence sharing.

The two countries clinched the deal in 2016 in the face of domestic opposition toward military cooperation with the old foe.

South Korea's spy chief, Suh Hoon, called for caution in nullifying the GSOMIA, telling a parliamentary intelligence panel that it had both "practical benefits and symbolic meanings", said Lee Eun-jae, a lawmaker who attended the meeting.

The United States has urged its two key Asian allies to consider reaching a "standstill agreement" to forestall any further action and allow time for negotiations, a senior US official told reporters on Tuesday.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said he would encourage "a path forward" when he joins Kang and Kono for a three-way meeting in Bangkok, though Kang has said it "wouldn't be easy" for the United States to mediate openly.

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