SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said Tuesday his government would move to restore Japan’s preferential trade status as he pushes to resolve history and trade disputes with Japan despite domestic opposition .
In lengthy televised comments during a cabinet council meeting, Yoon defended his moves, saying that leaving ties with Japan so strained would be neglecting his duty because increased bilateral cooperation is vital to solving the diverse challenges facing Seoul. .
“I thought it would be like neglecting my duty as president if I also incited hostile nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiments to use them for domestic politics leaving behind the current serious international political situation,” said Yoon.
He said the need to strengthen ties with Japan has grown due to the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program, the intensifying 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 who together are home to some 80,000 US troops. But their relationship has often fluctuated mainly due to problems arising from the Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910-1945.
At the heart of the recent impasse were the 2018 South Korean court rulings ordering two Japanese companies to compensate some of their former Korean employees for forced labor during Japanese rule. Japan has refused to accept the rulings, saying all issues of compensation had already been resolved when the two countries normalized ties in 1965.
Disputes over the story have spilled over into other issues, with the two countries downgrading each other’s trading status. Japan has also tightened export controls to South Korea, while Seoul has threatened to end 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 victims of forced labor involved in the 2018 lawsuits without seeking contributions from Japanese companies.
Last week, Yoon traveled to Tokyo for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, during which they agreed to resume regular visits and initiate high-level economic security talks.
Ahead of the summit, the South Korean government said Japan had agreed to lift export restrictions on materials needed for major South Korean export items such as semiconductors and smartphones, and that South Korea would also withdraw its complaint to the Organization. world trade once the curbs are removed. They said the two countries would also continue talks on restoring each other’s trade status.
Conservative Yoon’s push sparked protests from some of the forced labor victims and liberal opposition politicians, who demanded direct compensation to Japanese companies and a direct apology from Tokyo for the forced labor. A public poll suggested that about 60% of Koreans opposed Yoon’s measures to resolve the forced labor issue.
In his remarks to the cabinet council, Yoon said he would order his trade minister to start taking the legal steps necessary to restore Japan to a “white list” of nations receiving expedited preferential trade status.
He said both South Korea and Japan need to remove obstacles that hinder the improvement of bilateral ties. “If South Korea eliminates obstacles preemptively, Japan will surely reciprocate,” she said.
Yoon said his government will also make efforts to help heal the woes of forced labor victims and their relatives. But she said there are still those in South Korea who try to boost their political gains by “shouting exclusive and anti-Japanese nationalism (slogans).”
The main liberal opposition, the Democratic Party, responded that Yoon’s condemnation of his critics cannot justify his Japanese diplomacy, which he said hurt South Korea’s national pride and interests. Spokesman Ahn Ho- young said Yoon must apologize and withdraw his third-party reimbursement plan for victims of forced labor.
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