(ATTN: UPDATES with more analyst's comments in 14th para)
By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, July 12 (Yonhap) -- A foreign ministry official handling Asia-Pacific affairs is visiting Japan as Seoul steps up efforts to reverse Tokyo's recent export control measure through bilateral dialogue and U.S. mediation.
Kim Jung-han, a director-general at Seoul's foreign ministry, arrived in Japan on Thursday to attend a meeting of South Korean diplomatic mission chiefs in the city of Niigata the following day, but his visit raised the prospects of a possible meeting with Tokyo officials.
On July 4, Japan enforced toughened restrictions on exports of key high-tech materials to South Korea in an apparent retaliatory step for last year's Supreme Court rulings here that ordered Japanese firms to compensate victims of wartime forced labor.
After the measure, Seoul criticized it as an "unreasonable" move that runs counter to free trade principles and launched a diplomatic campaign to both prod Tokyo to retract the measure and rally support from the international community, including the United States.
South Korea's Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-pyo will preside over the Niigata meeting, at which the participants are likely to explore ways to remove Japan's trade restrictions on several exports used in semiconductors and displays.
No plan has been announced yet for director-general-level diplomatic talks between Seoul and Tokyo.
The meeting of South Korean diplomats coincides with the planned working-level talks between industry ministry officials from the two sides to discuss Japan's trade restrictions and its current review of whether to exclude South Korea from its "white list" of countries entitled to preferential treatment for trade.
Amid Seoul's appeal for mediation, signs of Washington's willingness to mediate have emerged.
On Thursday, during a visit to Washington, Kim Hyun-chong, deputy chief of the presidential National Security Office, told reporters that the U.S. has offered trilateral high-level talks with South Korea and Japan to address the trade tensions. But Japan has yet to respond, he said.
Kim, who arrived in Washington on Wednesday, held talks with acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, as well as with members of the Senate. Mulvaney expressed hope that the two U.S. allies will be able to resolve the dispute in a constructive manner, according to Kim.
On Thursday, Kim Hee-sang, director-general for bilateral economic affairs at the foreign ministry, met Roland de Marcellus, acting deputy assistant secretary for international finance and development at the State Department, and Marc Knapper, deputy assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan.
New Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell is currently in Japan as part of an Asia tour that includes a visit to Seoul next week, sparking speculation that he could play a role in de-escalating the trade row between South Korea and Japan.
The heightened friction between the two core Asian allies has long been a hurdle for Washington's scheme to strengthen its network of regional allies and partner countries to promote security and safeguard what it calls the rules-based order amid an intensifying Sino-U.S. rivalry.
Lee Jae-young, president of the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, said Japan's trade restrictions, if they persist, could undermine Tokyo's leadership in the world and lead to unintended consequences of strengthening China's economic clout and leadership.
With no sign of Japan moving to compromise, Seoul has been trying to drum up international support based on its claim that Japan's export control is a politically driven measure and out of sync with international norms.
During a key World Trade Organization session in Geneva on Tuesday, Ambassador Paik Ji-ah, Seoul's top envoy at its permanent mission in Geneva, voiced Seoul's concerns on Japan's trade restrictions.
Tokyo has pressured Seoul to step in to address renewed tensions from top court rulings over forced labor, as it argues that all reparation issues stemming from its 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula were settled under a 1965 state-to-state accord aimed at normalizing bilateral ties.
But Seoul has refused to intervene in civil litigation, saying it honors court decisions under a democratic constitutional principle that guarantees the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial powers.
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