Korea seeks US intervention to heal deepening rift with Japan over hi-tech export restrictions

12-Jul-2019 Intellasia | Reuters-Bloomberg | 6:02 AM Print This Post

South Korea has intensified diplomatic efforts to involve the US in its bitter dispute with Japan, holding high-level meetings in Washington and warning of the negative impact on global trade if the stand-off is not resolved.

Foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha spoke to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by phone and conveyed South Korea’s concerns over Japan’s “undesirable” export restrictions affecting hi-tech materials, the foreign ministry said.

“Minister Kang said Japan’s trade restrictions could not only damage South Korean companies but also bring about negative impacts on the world trade order as well as US firms by disturbing global supply chains,” Kang told Pompeo, according to the ministry. “This is undesirable for not only South Korea-Japan bilateral ties but South Korea-US-Japan trilateral cooperations as well.”

South Korea is the world’s biggest manufacturer of computer chips and displays but Tokyo last week tightened the approval process for Japanese shipments of hi-tech materials used by South Korean companies such as Samsung and SK Hynix.

Seoul regards the restrictions as politically motivated retaliation for court rulings ordering Japanese firms to compensate South Korean victims of wartime forced labour under Japanese occupation. Tokyo denies this charge but the restrictions have nonetheless provoked boycotts of Japanese products in South Korea and a deepening diplomatic rift.

On Thursday, South Korea’s ruling party confirmed 300 billion won (US$254.8 million) would be included in a supplementary budget bill to help companies adapt to Japan’s export curbs.

Seoul has also dispatched senior government officials to Washington to solicit US intervention. Kim Hyun-chong, President Moon Jae-in’s top security aide, arrived in Washington on Wednesday to discuss the escalating row. Kim Hee-sang, a senior foreign ministry aide, will also meet US state department officials.

According to Yoon Sung-suk, a political science professor at Chonnam National University, South Korea is seeking to use the three-way alliance between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo to persuade the US to intervene.

The daylight between Seoul and Tokyo could weaken the coalition, as North Korea turns to China and Russia

Shin Kak-soo, South Korea’s former ambassador to Japan

“President Trump will feel obliged to wade in as Washington cannot afford to let this dispute between two of its key allies get out of control at a time when the US wants to stem China’s growing influence in the region and needs their cooperation in persuading North Korea to give up nuclear weapons,” Yoon said. “In the middle and long term, the two countries will find no alternatives but reach a compromise following Washington’s arbitration.”

Yoon recalled the intervention of Barack Obama’s administration in 2015 when South Korean resentment over Japan’s wartime use of sex slaves threatened to undermine trilateral ties. Japan agreed to establish a 10 billion yen fund assist and compensate victims.

However, the fund was established while Park Geun-hye was president of South Korea. President Moon, her successor, has since deemed that resolution insufficient, insisting the government-to-government agreement failed to reflect victims’ demand for an official apology from Tokyo. The fund was disbanded earlier this month.

Shin Kak-soo, South Korea’s former ambassador to Japan, warned the current dispute could jeopardise trilateral cooperation and urged the US to mediate.

“The daylight between Seoul and Tokyo could weaken the coalition, as North Korea turns to China and Russia for a trilateral cooperation,” he said. “It is imperative for both countries and people to cool down from heated exchanges of emotional responses and to look at their important ties in a much broader perspective.”

The current stand-off has been exacerbated by suggestions in Japan that South Korea cannot be trusted to prevent sensitive materials being exported to North Korea.

Japanese officials have indicated the export restrictions were imposed because of “inappropriate, security-related” risks, particularly regarding hydrogen fluoride, which they say may be used to make the nerve agent sarin.

Japanese trade minister Hiroshige Seko on Wednesday took to Twitter to defend the restrictions, claiming: “This revision of the operation is not an embargo on Korea, but will remove the incentives that have been implemented for Korea in the past, and return it to the usual measures similar to many other countries. If there is no concern such as military diversion, permission will be issued.”

In response, a presidential Blue House official described such claims as “baseless”, insisting Seoul continues to strictly abide by international sanctions on North Korea.

President Moon sensitive to any suggestion he has failed to uphold the US-led economic blockade on North Korea dismissed the claim as “groundless” and his government released data showing there were no cases of the country re-exporting Japanese hydrogen fluoride.

Chemical experts in South Korea have also rejected Tokyo’s claims, noting hydrogen fluoride used to produce chemical weapons or enrich uranium is usually of low purity and easily obtainable in many places, such as China, while the type of hydrogen fluoride imported for semiconductor etching purposes has a purity rate of more than 99.999 per cent.

Japanese minister Shinzo Abe has, for his part, accused South Korea of “breaking promises” while insisting the restrictions were unrelated to the two countries’ divisive “historical issues”.

“We did not intertwine historical issues with trade issues,” Abe said on Wednesday. “The issue of former Korean labourers is not about a historical issue but about whether to keep the promise between countries under international law… and what to do when the promise is broken.”

Moon on Wednesday warned Japan against escalating the stand-off and entering a “dead-end street”.

According to Jonathan Berkshire Miller, a senior fellow with the Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo who specialises in Northeast Asian security issues, personal acrimony between the two leaders will make the dispute even harder to resolve.

“The leaders on both sides are incompatible with any sort of political rapprochement,” Berkshire Miller said. “The sense on Moon [in Japan] is negative and Abe is obviously persona non grata in South Korea.”



Category: Korea

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