South Korea has formally restored Japan to its list of countries it gives preferential treatment in trade, three years after the neighbors downgraded each other’s trade status amid a diplomatic row over historical grievances.
The move, announced by the South Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy on Monday, comes as Seoul and Tokyo are working to repair relations and strengthen their three-way security cooperation with Washington to counter the threat posed by North Korea.
South Korea’s decision follows a summit between South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo last month, where they vowed to rebuild their security and economic ties.
South Korean officials expect Japan to reciprocate by restoring Seoul as a favored trade partner but foresee that step taking more time based on the procedures to revise Japan’s export regulations.
The trade dispute between the two countries erupted in 2019, when Japan tightened export controls on key chemicals South Korean companies use to make semiconductors and displays, prompting South Korea to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Seoul accused Tokyo of weaponizing trade to retaliate against South Korean court rulings that ordered Japanese companies to offer reparations to South Koreans forced into slave labor before the end of World War II, when Japan had colonized the Korean Peninsula.
Japan insisted that all compensation issues were settled by a 1965 treaty that normalized relations and removed South Korea from its “white list” of countries receiving fast-track approvals in trade. South Korea responded by dropping Japan from its own white list.
The relations between the US allies began to thaw in March when Yoon’s government announced plans to use South Korean funds to compensate the forced laborers without requiring Japanese contributions.
Yoon’s push to mend ties with Tokyo has triggered criticism from some forced labor victims and from his political rivals, who have called for direct compensation from Japanese companies that employed the forced laborers.
But Yoon has defended his decision, saying closer ties with Japan are essential for dealing with a slew of regional challenges, especially North Korea’s growing nuclear threat.
Following the Yoon-Kishida summit, South Korea withdrew its complaint at the WTO against Japan as Tokyo simultaneously confirmed its removal of export controls over a set of chemicals seen as vital to South Korea’s technology industry.