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Japan, S. Korea clash over trade at regional meeting

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, left, and South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (AP)

BANGKOK (Kyodo) -- Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung Wha clashed Friday at a meeting, with Kang condemning Tokyo's latest export control measure as being "unilateral and arbitrary."

    In a meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China and South Korea in Bangkok, Kang said her government is "gravely concerned" by a Japanese decision to remove Seoul from a "white list" of countries with preferential trade status.

    "I am compelled to draw your attention to the decision made by Japan just this morning to remove my country from its list of trading partners that receive comprehensive export preferential treatment," she told the meeting, part of which was open to the media.

    "And this in a very unilateral and arbitrary manner," she added.

    Kono dismissed Kang's accusation, saying Tokyo's latest measure is consistent with World Trade Organization rules.

    "Japan's necessary and legitimate review of its export control is fully compatible with a free trade regime," Kono said.

    "I don't know what is the source of complaint by Foreign Minister Kang," he said.

    In a separate meeting in the Thai capital, Kang raised export control issues without singling out Japan, according to a Japanese Foreign Ministry official.

    In the foreign ministerial session of the 18-member East Asia Summit, Kono explained Japan's position and stressed that measures would not hamper free trade, the official said.

    Earlier Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet removed South Korea from the so-called white list countries entitled to receive minimum restrictions on purchasing goods that can be diverted for military use, in Tokyo's second round of export control measures against Seoul.

    The move is certain to further diminish bilateral relations, already hit by the issue of compensation for wartime Korean laborers.

    Tokyo has argued that removing the preferential export status is strictly due to a loss of trust and national security concerns. Seoul claims the Japanese action is aimed at damaging its economy because of political and historical grievances.

    Meeting bilaterally with her counterparts from China, Brunei, Laos and Myanmar on the sidelines of ASEAN-related meetings, Kang sought understanding of South Korea's position as she criticized Japan's export control measures as economic retaliation against her country.

    In the ASEAN-plus-three meeting, Kono demanded that South Korea remove its import ban on fishery products from Japan, saying the measure is "unscientific" and "unfair," according to the Japanese official.

    Kono also condemned a South Korean top court decision last year that ordered some Japanese companies to pay damages to Koreans who said they were victims of forced labor during Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, the official said.

    Kono was quoted as saying the order fundamentally subverts the legal basis of the 1965 treaty that normalized diplomatic relations between the two countries, and that South Korea must resolve this situation that is in violation of international law.

    Japan has consistently argued that the issue of compensation of former Korean laborers was "settled completely and finally" by the treaty.

    Despite the spat over bilateral trade, Kono and Kang called for increased efforts by ASEAN-plus-three members to conclude negotiations this year for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a 16-member Asia-wide free trade agreement.

    "We should avoid further delay in agreeing to the RCEP. The negotiations should be concluded within this year," the South Korean minister said, calling for a "comprehensive, ambitious and mutually beneficial" agreement.

    RCEP brings together the 10-nation ASEAN plus Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India.

    ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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