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Tensions stall Japan/South Korea FTA

Stuff (New Zealand)

Tensions stall Japan/South Korea FTA

27 May 2006

TOKYO: Negotiations for a free trade pact between South Korea and Japan have been deadlocked for more than a year partly due to differences over how the two sides view their history, South Korea’s commerce minister said on Friday.

Speaking at a Tokyo symposium, Chung Sye-kyun said it was difficult to isolate economic issues from "other issues we are faced with", referring to tensions over history including Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to a Tokyo war shrine.

Japan’s ties with South Korea have soured since Koizumi came into power in 2001, largely due to his annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine which Seoul views as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.

"Korea believes that it is in its national interest to promote free trade agreements (FTAs) with many countries and a Japan-Korea FTA is not an exception," Chung said through an interpreter.

"The reason behind bilateral negotiations stalling may not only be in differences of views among industries, but (also) the broader historical issue," he said.

Japan and South Korea, Asia’s biggest and fourth-largest economies, agreed in 2003 to negotiate a free trade pact but talks have been stalled since late 2004.

The trade talks were touted at the time as cementing ties between the two countries, with a combined market of 170 million people with annual output of $US5 trillion ($NZ7.9 trillion).

Koizumi has said he makes the pilgrimages to Yasukuni to pray for peace and pay respects to Japan’s war dead, but South Korea protests the fact that convicted war criminals are also honoured there. South Korea suffered sometimes brutal Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945.

In addition to Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits, South Korea has been unhappy with Japan’s approval of school history textbooks that critics say whitewash its militarist past.

Reflecting concerns among Japanese business leaders that political tensions would hurt growing economic ties in the region, the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, a business group, earlier this month called for Koizumi to stop his visits to the shrine.