By Hyonhee Shin
BANGKOK (Reuters) – South Korea warned on Thursday that security cooperation with Japan might be hurt if it removes South Korea from its list of countries that face minimum trade restrictions, after talks failed to narrow their differences.
Relations between Japan and South Korea are arguably at their lowest since they normalized ties in 1965, with a spiraling diplomatic and trade row threatening to disrupt the global supply of semiconductors and undercut security cooperation on North Korea.
South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, held talks with her Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, on the sidelines of a Southeast Asian conference in Bangkok on Thursday.
The meeting was the highest-level talks since Japan tightened curbs last month on exports to South Korea of high-tech materials, accusing its neighbor of inadequate management of sensitive items.
The export restrictions came as Japan was already angry about a South Korean court ruling last year that Japanese firms had to pay compensation to South Koreans forced to work in Japanese factories during Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
Japan says the issue of compensation for its wartime actions had been settled by a 1965 treaty and it asked South Korea to seek international arbitration to resolve the dispute.
The Bangkok talks yielded little progress, with an official at South Korea’s foreign ministry saying there was “virtually no change” in Japan’s stance.
The official said Japan was “highly likely” to approve South Korea’s removal from Japan’s so-called white list of countries that enjoy smooth trade on Friday.
Kang said she urged Kono to stop the process or it would force South Korea to craft countermeasures.
South Korean officials have warned they may reconsider an intelligence sharing accord with Japan if the feud worsens.
The bilateral accord, known as the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), is automatically renewed every August. It is chiefly aimed at countering North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.
“As Japan cited security reasons for its trade restrictions, I said we will have no option but to review the various frameworks of security cooperation with Japan,” Kang told reporters, when asked whether South Korea would keep the GSOMIA if it was dropped from the Japanese list.
There was no immediate comment from Japan’s foreign ministry.
Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported Kono had asked South Korea to take steps to prevent any damage to the Japanese firms ordered to pay compensation to former laborers.
A Japanese government source said that Tokyo’s stance was to try to keep the trade and history dispute separate from security matters, including the renewal of the GSOMIA.
The 55-minute talks began with a frosty greeting.
Both Kang and Kono appeared stony-faced as they shook hands, and Kang focused on reviewing documents she brought before making opening remarks, shunning eye contact.
Any change in security cooperation between Japan and South Korea would likely worry the United States, which has called on is two key Asian allies to resolve their differences.
The United States has urged South Korea and Japan to consider reaching a “standstill agreement” to forestall any further action and allow time for negotiations, a senior U.S. official told reporters on Tuesday.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said he would encourage “a path forward” when he joins Kang and Kono for a three-way meeting in Bangkok, though Kang has said it “wouldn’t be easy” for the United States to mediate openly.
“We’ve made clear to the Japanese side that for now we need to buy time for a diplomatic solution,” the South Korean foreign ministry official told reporters after the meeting with Kono.