The Cabinet on Friday is expected to approve phase two of tighter export control measures against South Korea, brushing off pleas by both Seoul and Washington to halt further actions that could escalate tensions and rattle alliances.
Nearly a month after Tokyo imposed stricter rules on the export of three chemicals — fluorinated polyimide, hydrogen fluoride and a group of chemicals known as resists — integral to smartphone screens and semiconductors, and therefore critical to South Korean companies, Japan repeated its pledge to remove its neighbor from a list of countries entitled to preferential treatment in trade on Friday.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono met Thursday with his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Bangkok, but the meeting apparently failed to bridge the wide gap in their positions. It was the first face-to-face encounter between both nations’ top diplomats since Japan forged ahead with intensifying the screening process on the three chemical exports to South Korea.
Kono and Kang shook hands solemnly in front of the press at the beginning of the meeting but didn’t exchange words.
Kang told reporters after the meeting that Japan’s measures to tighten export controls could weaken security ties between Japan and South Korea, hinting that the renewal of a military intelligence-sharing agreement may be hindered.
“We cannot help but see this as affecting the framework of security cooperation between South Korea and Japan,” Kang said.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is slated to meet with the two foreign ministers Friday to help prevent further fallout. U.S. regards the trade dispute between the two Asian neighbors as a destabilizing factor that could undermine the U.S. strategy against North Korea.
The United States has reportedly proposed Japan and South Korea sign a “standstill agreement” in an apparent attempt to ease tensions.
“We will encourage them to find a path forward,” Pompeo told reporters Tuesday. “They’re both great partners of ours. They’re both working closely with us on our effort to denuclearize North Korea. So if we can help them find a good place for each of the two countries we’ll certainly find that important for the United States.”
Strong pushback from South Korea is likely to further sour an already tense relationship, mired with disagreements stemming from South Korean judicial decisions on wartime forced labor and other controversies.
South Korean police said a 72-year-old man who had left a note critical of Japan set himself on fire in downtown Seoul on Thursday, the second such incident in recent weeks. The man is receiving medical treatment and is in a critical condition.
South Korea had been the only Asian nation on Japan’s “white list,” from which no entity has ever been removed. The ejection of South Korea will leave 26 countries — including the United States, France and Argentina — on the list.
Once removed, South Korea would be treated the same way as other countries not on the white list in terms of export control. Exports to South Korea will require additional screening to ensure they will not be misappropriated for the production of weapons — conventional or those of mass destruction. South Korea has vigorously objected to the proposed new controls.
Japan has argued that removing the preferable export status is strictly due to a loss of trust and concerns over national security. For example, Tokyo has pointed out weak points in South Korea’s export controls, and regards their lack of a legal basis for conventional weapons nonproliferation as well as the small number of inspection staff to be problematic.
South Korea disputes those points, alleging that the Japanese moves are in retaliation — and an intentional attempt to damage its economy — because of political and historical grievances.
Bitter bickering between the two countries has now spilled onto the global stage. Last week, South Korea proposed the trade dispute as an agenda item at the World Trade Organization’s general council meeting, and requested a complete retraction of Japan’s actions at a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiation session.
Trade minister Hiroshige Seko this week chided South Korea for repeatedly discussing the issue at international conferences.
“I wonder whether it is appropriate to discuss the matter at the WTO. But bringing that up at RCEP? It has nothing to do with the export measures at all,” Seko told reporters Monday.
“If South Korea keeps raising the issue … at meetings that have nothing to do with export controls, I worry that South Korea will lose international credibility.”
The dispute’s consequences have already spread beyond trade, with South Korean municipalities suspending exchange programs with Japanese counterparts. South Korean airlines are also canceling their flights to some regional cities as more passengers are dissuaded from traveling to Japan.
Kang said in parliament earlier this week that the South Korean government is “preparing for various possible options” if the country is dropped from Japan’s white list.
Information from Reuters added