South Korean political parties back Moon in Japan trade row

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, second from right, shakes hands with Hwang Kyo-ahn, the main opposition Liberty Korea Party chairman, during a meeting with ruling and opposition party leaders to talk about an ongoing South Korea-Japan trade conflict at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, July 18, 2019. (Bee Jae-man/Yonhap via AP)

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Setting aside their usual bickering, South Korean liberal and conservative parties on Thursday vowed to cooperate to help the Seoul government prevail in an escalating trade row with Japan.

After a meeting between the parties’ leaders and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at Seoul’s presidential office, they announced plans to create a “pan-national” emergency body to respond to tighter Japanese trade controls on certain technology exports to South Korea.

The meeting came amid growing concerns in South Korea that Japan’s trade curbs, which could possibly be expanded to hundreds of trade items in coming weeks, would rattle its export-dependent economy.

South Korean political leaders urged Japan to immediately withdraw the measures they described as “unjust economic retaliation” that would seriously harm bilateral relations and cooperation.

The leaders of conservative parties also called for Moon to take more aggressive diplomatic steps, such as pushing for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or sending a special envoy to Japan.

Earlier on Thursday, South Korea’s central bank lowered its policy rate for the first time in three years to combat a faltering economy that faces further risks created by the trade row with Japan.

“Japan’s export restriction measures are an unjust economic retaliation that violates the order of free trade and seriously damages friendly and mutually beneficial relationships between South Korea and Japan,”the South Korean parties and presidential Blue House said in a joint statement after the meeting.

Moon during the meeting said that a united front between the government and political parties would “send a good message to Japan and increase the negotiation leverage of our government and companies.”

Hwang Kyo-ahn, leader of the conservative Liberty Korea Party, called for Moon to push for a quick meeting with Abe or send high-level special envoys to Tokyo and Washington, a treaty ally with both Asian nations, to help resolve the standoff.

“The government doesn’t have concrete plans and is just appealing to the emotions of our people with words. However, words and emotions cannot solve this problem,” Hwang said.”Core issues should be resolved between the leaders of both countries … I think the president should solve this with a top-down approach.”

Moon said he was open to sending special envoys or holding high-level meetings with Japan, but that such moves would have to be set up by progress in working-level negotiations to be successful, Blue House spokeswoman Ko Min-jung said. Moon also said wasn’t acting on “anti-Japan emotion” and was committed to diplomatically resolving the problem, Ko said.

“(Moon) expressed gratitude that he was able to issue a united voice with the leaders of ruling and opposition parties,” Ko told reporters after the meeting. “While (Moon) said long-term efforts to strengthen our components industry (to reduce dependence on Japan) and diversifying import sources are important, he would not take lightly immediate diplomatic efforts to find a solution.”

The dispute erupted earlier this month when Tokyo tightened controls on the exports of photoresists and two other chemicals to South Korean companies that use them to produce semiconductors and display screens for smartphones and TVs.

Seoul has accused Tokyo of weaponizing trade to retaliate against South Korean court rulings calling for Japanese companies to compensate aging South Korean plaintiffs for forced labor during World War II, and plans to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization.

Tokyo said the issue has nothing to do with historical issues between the countries and says the materials affected by the export controls can be sent only to trustworthy trading partners. Without presenting specific examples, it has questioned Seoul’s credibility in controlling the exports of arms and items that can be used both for civilian and military purposes.

South Korea has rejected the Japanese claims and proposed an inquiry by the United Nations Security Council or another international body on the export controls of both countries.

South Korea is also bracing for the possibility that Japan will take further steps by removing it from a 27-country “whitelist” receiving preferential treatment in trade.

Its removal from the list would require Japanese companies to apply for case-by-case approvals for exports to South Korea of hundreds of items deemed sensitive, not just the three materials affected by the trade curbs that took effect July 4. It will also allow Japanese authorities to restrict any export to South Korea when they believe there are security concerns.

“The Japanese government should immediately withdraw its economic retaliation measure and clearly understand that additional measures such as the removal from the whitelist would threaten South Korea-Japan relations and the security cooperation in Northeast Asia,” said Choi Do-ja, spokeswoman of the conservative Bareun Mirae Party.

During the meeting Sim Sang-jung, leader of the progressive Justice Party, called for Moon’s government to consider ending a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan if Tokyo removes South Korea from its trade whitelist, arguing that the deterioration of trust between the countries would leave less ground for security cooperation.

Chung Eui-yong, Moon’s national security director who also participated in the meeting, said Seoul wants to keep the arrangement for now but could review its renewal depending on developments, the Blue House said. The agreement was signed in 2016 and has been renewed every year.

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