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Bolton in Korea amid Seoul-Tokyo trade row

July 24,2019
Ahead of a top U.S. official’s visit, the Blue House refrained Tuesday from issuing strong rhetoric toward Japan about the escalating diplomatic row between the two countries.

President Moon Jae-in hosted a luncheon with leaders of the ruling Democratic Party at the Blue House to discuss countermeasures for Japan’s recent export restrictions. Led by floor leader Rep. Lee In-young, 14 lawmakers attended the meeting. Moon was accompanied by top aides including Chief of Staff Noh Young-min and Policy Chief Kim Sang-jo.

According to Ko Min-jung, presidential spokeswoman, Moon asked for the politicians’ cooperation to overcome the supply crisis in the semiconductor industry caused by Japan’s recent export restrictions during the 90 minute meeting.

“Politicians want to get angry and show concerns alongside the people, but they also need to give hope through cooperative politics,” Moon was quoted as saying by Ko. “I hope they will work together to pass the supplementary budget bill and counter Japan’s export restrictions.”

According to Ko, the participants all supported the government’s responses to Tokyo’s export restrictions and vowed to publicize the unfairness of Japan’s actions to the international community.

Conspicuously missing in Ko’s briefing was any criticism toward Japan. Moon and his aides have been condemning Japan almost daily since Tokyo imposed tighter export controls on three materials crucial for semiconductor and display production on July 4. The economic retaliation was an apparent protest against the Moon administration’s rejection to meddle in the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling that Japanese companies must pay individual compensation to Korean victims of wartime forced labor. The Blue House says Korea is a democracy and it cannot influence a judicial process.

The Blue House, however, toned down its rhetoric starting this week, coinciding with White House National Security Adviser John Bolton’s visit to Japan and Korea. Moon issued a message on Monday during a meeting with senior presidential secretaries, but it was more of an appeal to the Korean public for their efforts to overtake Japan’s industrial superiority, not a criticism toward Tokyo.

“We didn’t issue a new message because our stance remains unchanged,” a senior presidential aide told the JoongAng Ilbo on Tuesday. “We need to wait and see how things go.”

Another Blue House official also said it is unnecessary to repeat the same position when the administration’s stance did not change. “To have meaning, you should fire your artillery when there is a need,” he said.

Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Cho Kuk, who has been engaged in a fierce cyber campaign against Japan, also stopped his postings on Facebook. “I will stop writing about Japan for a while,” Cho reportedly told his associates on Monday.

Cho had made 44 Facebook postings criticizing Japan about the latest diplomatic spat over the past 11 days, a big jump from his six postings in June. He, however, said he would pause for a while, because Japan’s upper house election ended on Sunday and he wanted to see how the situation will unfold.

While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, following his ruling coalition’s victory, demanded Sunday that Korea offer a proper response, no additional measures were taken Tuesday, indicating that the snowballing diplomatic row may be coming to a lull.

Bolton, accompanied by Matthew Pottinger, the senior director for Asian affairs for the National Security Council, arrived at Osan Air Base in the afternoon, following their two-day visit to Japan.

It is the first time that Bolton is visiting Korea as the head of a delegation, since he was appointed in March last year, and not as part of an entourage of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Bolton will have a series of meetings with top officials including his counterpart, National Security Office Director Chung Eui-yong, today. He will also meet with Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, but no meeting with President Moon was scheduled as of Tuesday.

After arriving in Korea, Bolton first met with the U.S. ambassador to the country, Harry Harris, to check on pending issues.

During his visit to Japan, Bolton met with his counterpart, Shotaro Yachi, at the Office of Prime Minister Abe, on Monday and Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya on Tuesday.

Bolton’s tour is taking place after Trump said Friday that he would intervene in the ongoing dispute between Washington’s key Asian allies. Trump said Moon had informed him of the “friction going on now [with Japan] with respect to trade” and requested that Trump “get involved” in resolving the dispute.

It remains to be seen if Bolton will mainly focus on the Korea-Japan spat, including the possibility that Seoul would scrap the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement with Tokyo, or bring up other issues such as a possible U.S. request for troops to be dispatched to waters off Iran.

“He will discuss the Korea-Japan row, but he is not coming here just for that,” a senior Blue House official has said. “Various issues will be discussed.”

The United States has been asking its allies to join a military coalition to ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz amid heightened tensions with Iran. Asked if Bolton will discuss the dispatch of troops, a presidential aide said Tuesday that Seoul is reviewing various options regarding the issue. She, however, said she does not know if it is an agenda of Bolton’s meetings with Korean officials.

The Ministry of National Defense on Monday said Washington has not made an official request to Seoul for a dispatch of troops. “We are closely following the situation in the Strait of Hormuz while considering various possibilities, taking into account potential impacts the matter could have on our side,” Col. Roh Jae-cheon, deputy spokesman of the ministry, said.

BY SER MYO-JA [ser.myoja@joongang.co.kr]