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Japan, South Korea foreign ministers to meet after pact rescue

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South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is set to meet her Japanese counterpart Saturday, less than 24 hours after Seoul reversed a decision to sever a military information pact with its neighbour.

[TOKYO] South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha is set to meet her Japanese counterpart Saturday, less than 24 hours after Seoul reversed a decision to sever a military information pact with its neighbour.

Ms Kang will meet Toshimitsu Motegi in the Japanese city of Nagoya, where a Group of 20 gathering of foreign ministers is taking place. South Korea announced it would postpone a plan to pull out of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) on Friday, hours before it was due to expire.

The decision leaves the two US allies the task of unpicking a complex web of other disputes that have flared up over the past year. While South Korea's change of heart was welcomed by the US, which had pressured Seoul to reverse course, the root causes of the friction that has spilled over to hurt business and tourism ties remain unresolved.

Public opinion polls show neither South Korean President Moon Jae-in nor Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a political incentive to reduce tensions. Mr Moon, whose support is sagging, faces a parliamentary election next year that will shape the second half of his term, while Mr Abe is also struggling to quiet a scandal over spending on parties.

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The conservative main opposition Liberty Korea Party backed the decision to stay in the pact, but one of its lawmakers criticised Mr Moon for playing "an extremely dangerous gamble with security".

"We've just barely managed to step on the brake before a cliff," floor leader Na Kyung-won wrote in a post on Facebook. "Even if GSOMIA is extended, a crack in mutual trust remains and Korea-US relations could be twisted even more."

The reversal didn't go down well with others, who wanted South Korea to proceed with the pact termination. The People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a civic group and support base for Mr Moon, attacked the government on Twitter.

"You've finally surrendered to the US pressure," the group said in its post. "We condemn the decision to extend GSOMIA. What does Korea get by overturning its earlier decision to end the pact?"

NO INCENTIVE

Much of the animosity stems from disagreement over whether Japan has shown sufficient remorse for its 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Japan said all such issues were settled under a 1965 treaty, while South Korea said the treaty didn't cover emotional pain and suffering.

"It is definitely a step in the right direction in compartmentalising and insulating defense issues from history issues," said Yuki Tatsumi, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington DC, adding that "President Moon's popularity is not improving, so I still worry that he may resort to actions that harden Tokyo's attitude."

South Korea also announced it would temporarily withdraw a World Trade Organization complaint against Japan over its imposition of stricter checks on exports to its neighbour. Japan took that step earlier in the year amid a standoff over South Korean court decisions holding Japanese companies responsible for historical cases of forced labour.

Ill feeling over the disputes resulted in a two-thirds decline in the number of South Koreans visiting Japan in October. Japan's exports to South Korea also fell by 23 per cent in October.

The two countries are set to discuss the export controls, though it's unclear whether Japan - which has insisted they are a national security matter not connected with other disputes - is prepared to compromise.

Japan was also angered by South Korea's decision to disband a fund aimed at compensating women trafficked to its military brothels before and during World War Two. Tokyo had paid a billion yen (S$12.5 million) in a "final and irreversible" 2015 agreement with Mr Moon's predecessor in its latest bid to resolve the problem.

"Unfortunately this decision just gets us back to the earlier standoff over the comfort women and forced labour issues," said Ralph Cossa, emeritus president of Pacific Forum, a think tank in Honolulu. "It will be even more difficult now for Moon to be flexible on these issues. Abe will likely be even less inclined to help Moon save face so the bumpy ride is likely to continue as long as Moon is in power."

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