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Lee urges Japan to make concessions on non-tariff barriers in FTA talks
SEOUL, June 13 (Yonhap) -- South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said Wednesday Japan should make concessions on non-tariff barriers to trade if it wants to see progress in stalled negotiations to forge a free trade agreement between the two countries.

   Lee made the remark in an interview with Seoul's Maeil Business Newspaper, Japan's Nihon Keizai newspaper and other foreign media, stressing that a free trade agreement with Japan would mean little to South Korea as long as Tokyo maintains non-tariff barriers.

   "Japan is a country that traditionally has strong non-tariff barriers," Lee said. "If a country with the world's highest competitiveness has non-tariff barriers, even if it opens its market with an FTA, it will effectively remain closed."

   Non-tariff barriers refer to trade barriers other than tariffs that restrict imports, such as anti-dumping measures and countervailing duties.

   Seoul and Tokyo launched free trade negotiations in 2003, but the talks have been stalled for years amid concern in South Korea that such a deal would widen its trade deficit with Japan.

   Last month, Lee and Japanese and Chinese leaders agreed at an annual summit in Beijing that the three countries would launch official negotiations to forge a three-way free trade pact.

   But Lee said Wednesday the negotiations will take time to conclude.

   Separately, South Korea and China kicked off bilateral free trade talks last month.

   During the interview, Lee pressed Tokyo again to address long-running grievances over Tokyo's wartime sexual enslavement of Korean women, saying the issue is becoming increasingly urgent, as most victims are very old and may die before they receive compensation or an apology from Japan.

   "Four have passed away this year alone and some 32 remain," Lee said. "Japan may be misunderstood that it is waiting for all of them to die. If all of them pass away, it won't mark a resolution to the issue, but would mean Japan will be unable to resolve the issue forever."

   Historians say that tens of thousands of Asian women, mostly Koreans, were forced to work at front-line brothels for Japanese soldiers during the war. Korea was a colony of Japan from 1910 to 1945.

   Tokyo has thus far ignored Seoul's demand for official talks on compensating the aging victims. Seoul has been making the demand since its Constitutional Court ruled last year it is unconstitutional for the Seoul government to make no specific efforts to settle the matter with Tokyo.

   Japan maintains that all issues regarding its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, including the comfort women issue, were settled in a 1965 package compensation deal under which the two countries normalized their relations.

   Lee urged North Korea to learn from countries like Myanmar and Vietnam and open up, saying a leadership change in the communist nation would be a good chance to take such reform steps.

   "I have good will toward North Korea. If it reforms and opens up, it can be developed quickly," he said.

   Despite threats from the nuclear-armed North, Lee stressed emphatically that South Korea has no intention of seeking tactical nuclear weapons.

   "We are not considering it at all. We can't think of that at a time when we are trying to denuclearize North Korea. The current goal is to move toward a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula through North Korea's denuclearization," he said.