SEOUL, South Korea— The United States fully understands the seriousness of South Korea’s festering trade dispute with Japan, a high-ranking Seoul official said Wednesday after a meeting with the top U.S. diplomat for East Asian affairs.
David Stilwell, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, is in South Korea for three days, as Seoul is seeking U.S. help to resolve the spat between two of America’s most important allies in the region.
After meeting with Stilwell, senior South Korean presidential official Kim Hyun-chong told reporters that he had explained Stilwell about Seoul’s position on the issue in details. Kim said Stilwell “sufficiently understood the seriousness of this problem.”
Stilwell was to meet Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and other officials later Wednesday. Last week, Kang discussed the issue with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by phone and conveyed Seoul’s view that Japan’s “undesirable” trade curbs could disrupt global supply chains and hurt trilateral cooperation.
South Korea and Japan are closely linked economically and culturally and host a total of about 80,000 U.S. troops on their soils, the core of America’s military presence in the region. But they are often embroiled in historical and territorial disputes stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Such on-and-off disputes have complicated U.S. efforts to bolster trilateral cooperation to cope with North Korea’s nuclear threats and China’s growing influence.
The latest dispute flared after Japan tightened controls on high-tech exports to South Korea, potentially affecting its manufacturers and global supplies of high-tech products like smart phones and displays.
Seoul believes Japan was retaliating for South Korean court rulings last year that ordered Japanese companies to compensate some of their colonial-era Korean workers for forced labor.
Japan has denied that, maintaining that the sensitive materials subject to the stricter approval process can be exported only to trustworthy trading partners.
Japan maintains all colonial-era compensation issues were settled in 1965 when the two countries signed a treaty that restored their diplomatic ties. At the time, South Korea received more than $800 million in economic aid and loans from Japan and used the money to rebuild its infrastructure and economy devastated by the 1950-53 Korean War.
When South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies to compensate their former forced Korean laborers, the court said the 1965 treaty cannot prevent individuals from seeking compensation.
On Tuesday, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono warned Tokyo might take further action if South Korea pushes harder on the issues related to historical issues.
Tokyo has requested third-party arbitration of the Korean wartime labor dispute as stipulated in a 1965 treaty. The deadline for a response is Thursday, and Seoul has indicated that it will not respond.