U.S. calls on Japan’s top envoy to talk to Korea

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U.S. calls on Japan’s top envoy to talk to Korea

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his first phone call with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi on Monday emphasized the need for “constructive dialogue” between Seoul and Tokyo.

The U.S. State Department said in a statement that Pompeo “emphasized the need for constructive dialogue between Japan and [South] Korea and for cooperating with partners and allies to ensure a free and open future for the Indo-Pacific.”

Pompeo also “reiterated the shared goal of final and fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.”

In a departure from his predecessor’s stance, Motegi - while expressing willingness to “communicate” with Korea - said in his inaugural press conference that he is not sure if he would do so “actively,” amid tense bilateral relations between the two countries over export restrictions and historical issues.

Motegi replaced Taro Kono as Japan’s top diplomat during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s reshuffling of his cabinet last week, putting Seoul in a position where it will have to build relations with a new diplomatic team in Tokyo amid various disputes.

In his first press conference since he took the post on Sept. 11, a reporter asked Motegi whether he will “actively communicate” with his Korean counterpart amid tensions over the wartime forced labor issue.

“Setting aside how active it will be, I will maintain communication,” replied Motegi. He had also been asked if he will meet with Seoul counterparts at international conferences and multilateral meetings.

Kono, who is now Japan’s defense minister, has generally emphasized the importance of pursuing diplomatic communication actively, but Motegi’s remarks marked a departure from such a stance.

Seoul has fiercely protested a series of export restrictions by Tokyo, including Japan’s removal of Korea from its so-called white list of preferred trading partners last month. Korea on Wednesday also officially removed Japan from its own white list. Tokyo has been continuously objecting the Korean Supreme Court rulings last year ordering Japanese companies to compensate individual victims of forced labor during World War II, acknowledging the illegality of Japan’s brutal colonial rule from 1910-45.

Japan purports that all issues of compensation were resolved in a 1965 bilateral claims agreement but does not formally acknowledge that the wartime forced labor issue is the reason behind its trade restrictions.

Motegi is a former Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker and former trade minister who has tackled negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact.

Last Friday, Motegi was asked in a cabinet meeting if he plans to meet with Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha during the UN General Assembly session in New York which opened Tuesday.

He replied “nothing was decided” at the moment but there are plans for “continued communication between the foreign minister and diplomatic authorities.”

Kono, known for his hot temper, has actively pursued communication with Korea, and diplomatic sources have pointed out that he also shared a close working relationship with Kang. He has even been spotted smiling immediately after cameras disappeared while holding talks with Kang, despite scowling moments before.

However, Kono also caught flak for remarks and actions that were considered undiplomatic when he summoned Korean Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-pyo in July over the wartime forced labor issue, cutting off the ambassador’s remarks and saying he “crossed the line.”

In contrast to Kono, Motegi is seen to be trying to portray a cool and calm image.

A diplomatic source in Tokyo said Tuesday, “He is known for his cold and chill personality, so it appears that he is trying to maintain a posture of putting some distance with Korea while responding [to the situation].”

Motegi highlighted his plans to “deepen the U.S.-Japan alliance, the linchpin of Japanese diplomacy” during the press conference.

He went onto list five objectives he plans to focus on including firstly the North Korea issue and secondly “diplomacy with neighboring countries including China, [South] Korea and Russia.” Such matters are closely interlinked with diplomacy with Seoul.

While Washington has said it will not directly mediate Seoul and Tokyo’s trade spat, Pompeo in his first phone conversation with Motegi appears to acknowledge that South Korea and Japan’s continued diplomatic tensions are not constructive toward the United States’ strategic interests in the region.

Motegi in turn told Pompeo that he is “100 percent” on board with the United States’ efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

Like Georgetown University graduate Kono, Harvard-educated Motegi is also fluent in English.

A Korean Foreign Ministry official said Tuesday on Kang’s possible first meeting with the new Japanese foreign minister, “The mutual concerns between Korea and Japan still remain. We will have to see how the first meeting will proceed, and the two sides will make necessary introductions and, if time remains, discuss matters of mutual concern.”

The official did not deny the possibility of a director-general meeting of the two Foreign Ministries on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York next week, where Kang and Motegi could hold their first meeting.

Shigeki Takizaki was earlier this month named as the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s new director general of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau, succeeding Kenji Kanasugi.

Takizaki’s Korean counterpart is Kim Jung-han, the Korean Foreign Ministry’s director-general for Asian and Pacific Affairs.

BY SARAH KIM, SEO SEUNG-WOOK [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
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