By Hyonhee Shin and Tim Kelly
SEOUL/TOKYO (Reuters) – South Korea and Japan have toned down the rhetoric but show little sign of compromise in a bitter political and economic dispute as their foreign ministers prepare to meet in China this week.
Relations between the two U.S. allies are at their worst in years, with a trade row rooted in a decades-old dispute over compensation for Koreans forced to work during Japan’s wartime occupation of South Korea.
Foreign ministers Kang Kyung-wha of South Korea, Taro Kono of Japan and Wang Yi of China will have trilateral meetings in Beijing from Tuesday evening to Thursday.
“We will have to actively express our position, but I am leaving with a heavy heart because the situation is very difficult,” Kang said before departing for China where a one-on-one meeting with Kono is set for Wednesday.
Their August meeting in Bangkok, where cameras captured the unsmiling pair making perfunctory handshakes, achieved little. A day later, Japan cut South Korea from a white list of favoured trade partners, drawing retaliatory measures from Seoul.
“We expect to exchange views on various issues between Japan and the ROK, such as the issue of former civilian workers from the Korean Peninsula,” Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, using the initials of South Korea’s official name, the Republic of Korea.
The Beijing talks would reaffirm Japan’s “close bilateral cooperation” with South Korea, as well as trilateral ties with the United States, the ministry said.
Since the Bangkok meeting, Seoul has urged a “cooling off period” and Japan approved shipments of a high-tech material to South Korea for the second time since imposing export curbs in July.
Nevertheless, the dispute is far from over.
South Korea warned this month it may consider revoking a military intelligence sharing pact with Japan, though an official at the presidential Blue House said on Tuesday no decision had been taken.
Seoul has also raised concerns about Japan’s handling of contaminated water from the Fukushima nuclear plant, a South Korea official said, though it may not bring it up in Beijing.
South Korea and other countries have restrictions on imports of produce from areas around the Fukushima site where three reactors melted down after an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
NOT SO NICEFACE
While both sides have moderated their public statements, observers do not expect any major breakthroughs this week.
“I don’t think Japan is going to show a nice face to Seoul this time,” said one former Japanese diplomat familiar with the government’s position.
Japan believes South Korea’s economy is hurting more in the trade row, and “doesn’t mind waiting for further concessions from Seoul,” said the ex-diplomat.
Citing national security, Japan in July restricted exports of some key materials used in chips and displays made by South Korea firms, threatening to disrupt the global supply chain.
Later this month a decision to remove South Korea from Japan’s list of trading partners with fast-track access to a number of materials is scheduled to go into effect.
South Korea has responded by removing Japan from its own trade white list, and South Korean consumers are boycotting Japanese products and avoiding travel to Japan.
There also has been no progress in resolving the issue that triggered the latest chill in relations – a series of South Korean court rulings that ordered Japanese firms to compensate South Koreans forced to work for Japanese occupiers.
“I don’t think we can expect a big change in the situation as a result of tomorrow’s meeting because the forced labour issue is at the root of the deterioration in ties and there hasn’t been any new development regarding that,” said Kyungjoo Kim, a professor at Tokai University in Tokyo.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin, Joyce Lee and Hyunjoo Jin in SEOUL, Tim Kelly and Linda Sieg in TOKYO; additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Josh Smith; editing by Darren Schuettler)