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(LEAD) Seoul, Tokyo kick off trade talks amid escalating diplomatic spat

All News 11:38 March 10, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS details in paras 5-6, 16; CHANGES photos)
By Kang Yoon-seung

SEOUL, March 10 (Yonhap) -- South Korea and Japan on Tuesday met for the first time in three months to discuss their trade dispute amid dimmed hopes for reconciliation as the spread of the new coronavirus has led to more bilateral trust issues.

The two countries started the director-general level video conference at 10:00 a.m. according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

Officials from South Korea and Japan had planned to hold a face-to-face meeting in Seoul, but they later decided to hold a video conference as the two neighbors had virtually shut their borders against each other over the global COVID-19 outbreak.

The previous meeting in Tokyo in December produced no major breakthrough.

Lee Ho-hyeon, South Korea's director general for international trade policy, attended the video conference from the government complex in Seoul, with his counterpart Yoichi Iida participating from Japan.

The meeting is expected to run through Tuesday afternoon.

Officials from South Korea's trade ministry wait for the start of a video meeting with their Japanese counterparts at the government complex in Seoul on March 10, 2020. (Yonhap)

Japan declared a trade war against its Asian neighbor in July last year by imposing restrictions on exports to Seoul of three key industrial materials critical for South Korea's chip and display industries, namely photoresist, etching gas, and fluorinated polyimide.

Japan later removed South Korea from its list of trusted partners, claiming that Seoul did not effectively control the trade of sensitive materials that can be diverted for military use. Tokyo did not provide grounds to back up its allegations, however.

Seoul believes Tokyo's export curbs were politically motivated over 2018 South Korean Supreme Court rulings ordering Japanese firms to compensate South Korean victims of forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

In a tit-for-tat move, South Korea took Tokyo off its list of its trusted partners and sought mediation at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

To find a breakthrough, the two countries each made some goodwill gestures starting in November last year, with South Korea dropping its WTO lawsuit and putting off the termination of the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan.

Tokyo partially lifted the curbs on exports to South Korea of photoresist ahead of their summit in December. Despite the efforts, the two failed to reach agreement last year.

While Tuesday's meeting was supposed to provide hope for a breakthrough, the two countries are unlikely to break the deadlock as the global outbreak of COVID-19 has led to more trust issues.

On Monday, Japan adopted a temporary 14-day self-quarantine period for people flying in from South Korea and China and asked them to refrain from using public transport. Tokyo also decided to suspend its visa-waiver program for South Korean nationals.

The same day, Seoul suspended its own visa-free entry program for Japanese visitors and invalidated previously issued visas, saying Tokyo's move showed a "lack of understanding" over South Korea's "advanced, outstanding" quarantine system.

Also reflecting the tension, Japan insisted that Tuesday's meeting is aimed at discussing a broad range of issues and is not specifically on Tokyo's export curbs against South Korea.

Last week, South Korea again called for Japan to take corresponding actions and return its trade regulations to the levels before July last year, saying it has made more efforts to bolster its export controls to soothe Tokyo.

South Korea said it has increased the number of staff at the Korean Security Agency of Trade and Industry by 25 percent to better manage its export control system and restructured related organizations.

Lee Ho-hyeon, South Korea's director general for international trade policy (top, C), and other trade officials wait for the start of a video conference with their Japanese counterparts at the government complex in Seoul on March 10, 2020. (Yonhap)


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