Seoul seeks US backing over trade war

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, is welcomed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe upon his arrival for a welcome and family photo session at G-20 leaders summit in Osaka, western Japan, Friday, June 28, 2019. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool Photo via AP)

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left).

Calls are growing for the United States to intervene in the deepening trade friction between South Korea and Japan after Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe imposed new restrictions on exports that could hurt South Korea’s tech industry. Thoughts are that if tensions continue to escalate, cooperation outside bilateral economic relations such as coordinating “in efforts to handle and manage the North Korean nuclear conflict and other regional threats” may become challenging. Also, given that South Korea has so far responded by taking the ban to the World Trade Organization (WTO) for arbitration, threatening Japan with “corresponding measures” and showing no signs of backing down, Cheong Wa Dae and relevant government agencies plan to talk to senior U.S. politicians, warning that the restrictions will escalate further with potentially devastating, negative consequences for U.S. tech companies, which heavily rely on memory chips to function.


David R. Stilwell, the new U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, will visit South Korea, July 17, after his visit to Tokyo. Stilwell plans to meet foreign ministry officials during his stay here. While Washington was keen to avoid promising that Stilwell will be mediating between South Korea and Japan amid the worsening bilateral relations, Seoul officials were seeking to request support from Washington, sources said, Wednesday. Yoon Sang-hyun, chairman of the National Assembly’s foreign affairs committee, said Wednesday afternoon he had contacted U.S. politicians and experts on Korean affairs asking for Washington’s intervention on the trade dispute. “A resolution may require Washington’s intervention because Tokyo’s restrictions are against fair trade and non-discriminatory principles. As the restrictions would also affect the global supply chain in chips and flat-screens, if the restrictions continue, then that will also hit U.S. companies,” Yoon said.

Despite such efforts by the South Korean government, some experts remained doubtful over Washington’s active role in mediating the trade friction. “Former U.S. President Barack Obama stressed the importance of international norms and dialogues, but this is not the case for the sitting U.S. President Donald Trump,” Park Won-gon, a professor of international relations at Handong Global University, said. Another expert, who asked not to be identified, said Seoul needs to keep exploring ways to reach a settlement with Japan through negotiations, even if it is very tough to do so. “My view is that Abe may have already notified Trump of the economic retaliation on Korea in advance through their recent meetings, such as the one in Osaka on the sidelines of the G20 summit later last month,” the expert added. Abe and President Moon failed to make progress on outstanding disagreements at the G20.


From South Korea’s perspective, taking the issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) isn’t a “good idea,” the experts said. South Korea’s Supreme Court recently ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean victims of wartime forced labor. The ruling has since sparked strong opposition from Tokyo, further aggravating political relations between the two. Under a 1965 treaty, South Korea received a package of $300 million in economic aid and $500 million in soft loans from Japan in return for Seoul considering all pre-treaty compensation issues settled. For Japan, providing compensation to the Korean forced labor victims means that the 1965 treaty is invalid, a presidential aide and experts said. Following the ruling, Japan has reiterated its call to refer the conflict to an international arbitration panel. Under the 1965 treaty, South Korea should respond to whether to accept the demand from Japan before July 18.  “It is high time for the government to respond to the demand and discuss the issue on the international stage to prevent Japan from announcing additional retaliatory measures on Korea,” the Handong university professor Park said. “Abe is highly unlikely to retract the economic retaliation, as this will deal a severe blow to his domestic politics.”


By Lee Min-hyung

(Korea Times)

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