S Korean seeks trade zone with Japan, China

TOKYO — South Korea's new president, Lee Myung-Bak, has said he backs a vast free-trade zone with Japan and China to boost the competitiveness of the three economic powers.

"A free trade zone may be possible if each of the countries within the region works together," Lee said in an interview with foreign newspapers in Seoul, as quoted Monday by Japan's Nikkei business daily.

"By coordinating efforts, South Korea, China and Japan can maintain competitiveness in the global market. Japan should play a major role," Lee said.

South Korea has long been concerned that it is sandwiched between Japan, Asia's largest economy and a technological leader, and China, which is growing rapidly on its giant labour pool and manufacturing industry.

In a bid to secure South Korea's advantage, Lee's predecessor, Roh Moo-Hyun, negotiated a controversial free-trade deal with the United States.

Free trade talks between Japan and South Korea have been suspended since November 2004 as Seoul tried to open up Japan's agriculture market. Both countries heavily protect their farmers.
Lee, who took over last month, has sought to repair relations with Japan which were badly strained under Roh, who accused Tokyo of failing to atone for its 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean peninsula.

Lee, who is scheduled to visit Japan on April 20-21, suggested he may invite Emperor Akihito to pay the first imperial visit to South Korea since the two nations restored relations.

"It would be nice to have his visit here. It's time," Lee said.

Roh ended summits with Japan in anger at then prime minister Junichiro Koizumi's annual visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which venerates Japanese war dead including war criminals from World War II.

Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda is an opponent of the shrine. He met with Lee in Seoul hours after his inauguration in a bid to improve relations.

Lee said he shared views with Fukuda "on strengthening diplomatic ties in Asia."

"The relationship is poised to take a step forward," Lee said.


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