BANGKOK -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to break up a diplomatic brawl between Japan and South Korea at a three-way meeting Friday on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bangkok.
The trilateral meeting came after the Japanese government formally decided to to remove South Korea from the "white list" of 27 countries to which it grants preferential trade status. The move strips South Korea of streamlined access to Japanese goods. South Korea later vowed to take the same measures against Japan, removing its neighbor from South Korea's white list.
Pompeo reiterated in the meeting that he would encourage Washington's two biggest allies in East Asia to find a path forward, according to a source from the Japanese Foreign Ministry. Japan did not take his words to mean that the U.S. intended to mediate between the two sides.
South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha told reporters right after the trilateral meeting that she had "substantial regrets" about Japan's removal of South Korea from its list of favored trade partners. She urged Japan to take responsibility for going ahead with the move while Seoul and Washington were seeking a diplomatic solution.
Kang on Thursday warned that South Korea would have no choice but "to take necessary countermeasures" if Japan removes it from the white list.
"We should enlarge the pie that we are sharing through the free flow of trade and commerce and not adopt a beggar-thy-neighbor attitude," Kang said. She also made her case on the trade dispute to ASEAN ministers in a meeting on Thursday. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono and South Korea’s Kang also had “elegantly sharp” exchanges in Friday’s ASEAN+3 meeting, according to Philippine foreign minister Teodoro Locsin Jr.
Pompeo came to Bangkok hoping to help the feuding neighbors to resolve their trade spat.
Seoul signified that South Korea might retaliate against the Japanese trade restrictions by ending an agreement between Seoul and Tokyo designed to prevent leaks of highly classified military intelligence to third countries. South Korea has until Aug. 24 to pull out of the annual agreement.
The strained ties Japan and South Korea may badly undermine efforts to rid North Korea of its nuclear weapons. South Korea and Japan have traditionally worked together to maintain peace in Northeast Asia and to foster negotiations in the region among the big powers.
Nikkei staff writer Cliff Venzon in Bangkok contributed to this article.