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Japan-South Korea rift

Moon demands Japan drop South Korea export controls

Abe calls for talks between the nations' trade authorities to settle the issue

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, left, shakes hands wth Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a meeting in Chengdu, China on Dec. 24.    © AP

SEOUL -- In a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in demanded that Japan drop controls on exports to its neighbor.

In their first official talks in 15 months, Abe and Moon met for about 45 minutes in the southern Chinese city of Chengdu. They earlier held a trilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Moon asked Abe to return export controls to the level before Japan began restricting shipments of key semiconductor materials in July, according to presidential Blue House spokesperson Ko Min-jung. Abe said the problem could be solved through talks between trade authorities of both countries.

The leaders pledged to narrow their rift over a slew of historical and trade issues.

"The Republic of Korea and Japan are the closest neighbors historically and culturally. Matters may have been uncomfortable for a while, but we never can be far away," Moon said in his opening remarks. "The best way is to meet and have candid talks to resolve issues between the two countries."

Abe said that South Korea was an "important neighbor" and that he "wants to improve the important Japan-South Korea relationship."

Ties between the two neighbors are often fractious, but they are currently at a particularly low level with both sides pointing the finger at each other and seemingly unwilling to compromise on key issues. Much of the animosity stems from Japan's 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean Peninsula, and the different perspectives of its legacy. Tokyo and Seoul also bicker over the soverignity of islands that lie between the two countries.

The trigger for the current dissonance stems from a South Korean Supreme Court ruling in October 2018 that Japanese companies must pay compensation to Koreans who had been forced to work for them during the colonial period. Tokyo reacted angrily, saying the issue had already been settled in a 1965 treaty.

South Korea's Blue House said that both leaders acknowledged their differing views on the issue of the laborers and agreed to solve the problem through dialogue. Abe said the problem lay with the South Korean court's ruling, adding that it was Seoul's responsibility to find a solution.

In July, citing national security grounds, Japan tightened controls on exports of three chemicals essential for semiconductor makers in South Korea. The following month, the Abe administration stripped Seoul of its "whitelist" status, meaning Japanese companies need government approval before shipping sensitive materials.

South Korea said that these export controls were "unilateral" and "arbitrary" and filed a complaint to the World Trade Organization.

Also in August, Seoul announced it would not extend a military intelligence sharing pact with Tokyo, upsetting both Japan and the U.S., which were keen to keep the agreement to help protect them from possible North Korea missile attacks. But last month, hours before it was due to expire, South Korea reversed its decision to end the pact -- with the condition that Japan removes its export restrictions.

However, their relations showed small signs of improvement recently. Moon and Abe had a 10-minute unofficial dialogue in a regional meeting in Bangkok last month, and some South Korean lawmakers have submitted legislation designed to break the deadlock over wartime labor compensation.

Analysts say that the two countries need to seize the opportunity to improve relations.

"The key is to keep relations moving forward to avoid moving backward, and doing it right rather than doing it fast," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. "The Moon-Abe summit can provide further momentum to trade security talks and the South Korean National Assembly's legislation for compensating wartime labor survivors."

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