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South Korea to restore Japan’s trade status to improve ties

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) – South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol said yesterday his government will move to restore Japan’s preferential trade status as he pushes to resolve history and trade disputes with Japan.

In lengthy, televised comments during a Cabinet Council meeting, Yoon defended his moves, saying that leaving ties with Japan as fraught as they are would be neglecting his duty because greater bilateral cooperation is vital to resolve diverse challenges facing Seoul. “I thought it would be like neglecting my duty as president if I had also incited hostile nationalism and anti-Japan sentiments to use them for domestic politics while leaving behind the current, grave international political situation,” Yoon said.

He said the need to boost ties with Japan has grown because of North Korea’s advancing nuclear programme, the intensifying United States- (US) China strategic rivalry and global supply chain challenges.

South Korea and Japan have deep economic and cultural ties and are both key US allies that together host about 80,000 US troops. But their relations have often fluctuated mainly due to issues stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

At the centre of the recent impasse was the 2018 South Korean court rulings that ordered two Japanese companies to compensate some of their former Korean employees for forced labor during Japanese rule. Japan refused to accept the rulings, saying all compensation issues had already been settled when the two countries normalised ties in 1965.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks during a Cabinet meeting. PHOTO: AP

The history disputes spilled over to other issues, with the two countries downgrading each other’s trade status. Japan also tightened controls on exports to South Korea, while Seoul threatened to terminate a military intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo.

After months of negotiations with Japan, Yoon’s government earlier this month announced it would use local funds to compensate the forced labourer victims involved in the 2018 lawsuits without requiring contributions from the Japanese companies.

The conservative Yoon’s push has triggered protests from some of the forced labor victims and liberal opposition politicians, who have demanded direct compensation from the Japanese companies and a direct apology from Tokyo over the forced labour. A public survey suggested about 60 per cent of Koreans opposed Yoon’s measures to resolve the forced labour issue.

In his Cabinet Council remarks, Yoon said he will order his trade minister to begin taking legal steps necessary to restore Japan on a “whitelist” of nations receiving preferential fast-track trade status. He said both South Korea and Japan must remove obstacles that hinder the improvement of bilateral ties. “If South Korea preemptively eliminates obstacles, Japan will surely reciprocate,” he said.