WASHINGTON/SEOUL – U.S. President Donald Trump said Friday he is ready to help reduce tensions between Japan and South Korea over trade and wartime labor disputes if the two allies seek help from Washington.
Noting the trade tension between the two countries, Trump told reporters, “It’s like a full-time job getting involved between Japan and South Korea. … If they need me, I’m there.”
Trump revealed that South Korean President Moon Jae-In had asked him to help resolve the tensions.
“I like both leaders,” Trump said. “I like President Moon. And you know how I feel about Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe. He’s a very special guy.
“Hopefully they can work it out. But they do have tension, there’s no question about it, trade tension,” he added.
South Korea’s presidential Blue House spokeswoman, Ko Min-jung, said in a statement Saturday that Moon had asked Trump for help at their Seoul summit on June 30.
Ko said Moon talked to Trump in an effort to diplomatically solve the issue as Japanese media, at the time, constantly reported the possibility of economic retaliation against South Korea.
The sharp deterioration of ties between Tokyo and Seoul has been a headache for Washington as trilateral cooperation is seen as vital in pressuring North Korea to give up its nuclear and missile programs.
The two countries are at odds over South Korean court decisions ordering Japanese companies to give monetary compensation to victims of forced labor during Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.
In response, the companies — including Nippon Steel Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. — have refused to comply, based on Japan’s stance that South Korea waived any right to compensation under a 1965 accord accompanying a treaty that set up diplomatic relations between the countries.
Japan’s recent tightening of rules on exports of key materials used by South Korean chipmakers has also aggravated bilateral relations. Reflecting the soured ties, Abe and Moon did not hold one-on-one talks on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka late last month.
Japanese and South Korean officials held hours of talks on July 12 to discuss their row, without sign of a detente.
That meeting came after the U.S. State Department promised to do “everything we can” to ease tensions between the two American allies.
“We all face shared regional challenges and priorities in the Indo-Pacific and around the world,” department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said at that time.
Senior South Korean official Kim Hyun-chong, on a visit to Washington earlier this month, said the United States wanted high-level three-way talks to resolve the spat, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Ortagus declined to discuss potential meetings, but top U.S. diplomat Mike Pompeo and his two counterparts are all expected to be in Bangkok around the end of the month for meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.
In South Korea, where almost 7 in 10 people report negative feelings toward the country’s former colonial ruler, the spat has even led beer-lovers to boycott Japanese brews.
E-Mart, the country’s largest hypermarket chain, said sales of Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory beer fell nearly 25 percent in the first two weeks of July compared with the second half of June.
More broadly, given the volume of trade between the two neighbors, if the restrictions are sustained or expanded it would have “no small impact on our economy,” South Korean central bank chief Lee Ju-yeol told reporters.