Japanese and South Korean representatives facilitated understanding of each other’s export control systems but achieved no substantial results in dialing back enhanced screening measures in their first policy dialogue in more than 3½ years, government officials said Monday evening.
The top export control officials from the two countries met in Tokyo for about 10 hours, three hours longer than scheduled, in an effort to alleviate months of economic friction and sour diplomatic relations.
The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said the two sides discussed export control issues and exchanged information on their countries’ export control systems, which are designed to curb the proliferation of materials that could be used to make weapons.
Bilateral relations took a turn for the worse in July when Japan imposed stricter controls on exports to South Korea of high-technology materials.
The next policy dialogue will be held in Seoul “in the near future,” officials said without providing the specific date.
Trade minister Hiroshi Kajiyama declined to provide specifics on which areas the two countries had deepened their understanding of or which still needed further discussions.
“This is the first policy dialogue in 3½ years, so we confirmed each other’s (export control) structures,” Kajiyama said in welcoming the fact that the dialogue took place. “As we keep getting more confirmation, then we think we are going to make a decision” on whether to ease the tighter controls on the strategic chemicals.
The meeting is being viewed as tangible progress toward restoring trust between the two countries and could build positive momentum in the days leading up to planned talks between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon Jae-in next week in China.
The export talks were led by Yoichi Iida, director general of METI’s trade control department, and Lee Ho-hyeon, director general for international trade policy in South Korea’s trade ministry.
Before the meeting, however, the two sides appeared to be going in with different expectations. South Korean officials said the dialogue would be the first step for Japan to wind down enhanced screening measures on some of South Korea’s export materials, while Japanese officials asserted that such a move was not guaranteed.
After the 10-hour-long meeting, Iida told reporters the dialogue was a result of a series of preparatory meetings that laid the groundwork for building confidence and mutual understanding.
Iida declined to say whether South Korea demanded that Japan retract the stringent export control measures.
“From our standpoint, there are some areas where we gained further understanding, while there are others that we have a different understanding,” he said. “At this point, we don’t want to comment on whether our concerns are dispelled.”
Appearing Monday morning at a news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga refrained from speculating on the dialogue’s outcome, reminding reporters that Japan operates its export control system by evaluating various factors, including its counterpart’s export control system.
“First off, this is not a matter that we will decide by just consulting with other countries,” Suga said.
Starting in the summer, Japan intensified the screening process for exporting three key chemicals to South Korea that are needed to manufacture semiconductors and display panels. Japan also removed South Korea from a list of countries deemed to have sufficient export controls, citing concerns over Seoul’s checks on materials that can be used for conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction.
The moves developed into an economic tit-for-tat that worsened diplomatic relations already made shaky by wartime labor issues. Tokyo justified the decisions by pointing out that trust with Seoul has diminished, citing unsatisfactory export controls and historical issues. This prompted Seoul to downgrade its own trade relations with Japan.
At one point, relations soured to the point that Seoul announced it would terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement, a military intelligence pact between the two countries to exchange sensitive information, primarily on missile threats from North Korea.
Just hours before the agreement was due to expire last month, however, South Korea reversed course and also withdrew a complaint at the World Trade Organization over Japan’s export controls.