|President Moon Jae-in speaks before the start of a weekly Cabinet meeting at Cheong Wa Dae, Tuesday. Yonhap|
By Kim Yoo-chul
South Korea is handling trade issues with Japan "well," President Moon Jae-in said Tuesday. The President was referring to Tokyo's imposition in July of stricter controls on exports of three core materials to Korean companies manufacturing semiconductors and displays.
"Since Japan imposed controls on exports of materials to South Korean companies in July, we've been handling the issue quite well. I want to say thank you for the public's backing and quick response from the government and public sector," Moon said at the start of a weekly Cabinet meeting, according to press pool reports.
He noted that the restrictive measures are helping South Korean companies cut their reliance on Japan for industrial parts and are promoting balanced growth between small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and conglomerates.
"If South Korea embraces the challenges to get ahead in terms of fundamentally changing the country's industrial structure, then that will be a huge plus in enhancing industrial competitiveness."
President Moon asked the National Assembly to pass bills that will relax various regulations in the industrial parts and materials sectors.
Bilateral tensions between Seoul and Tokyo have risen since the imposition of the restrictive export measures, with Japan insisting that South Korea meet certain conditions in order to improve relations.
Seoul believes Tokyo's actions were in retaliation for South Korean Supreme Court rulings that ordered Japanese companies to compensate surviving Koreans who were forced to work for them before and during World War II. Tokyo argues that the rulings were a breach of the 1965 treaty normalizing diplomatic relations between the two countries, which it argues settled all matters of individual compensation.
At the meeting in Cheong Wa Dae, President Moon said Asia's fourth-largest economy was increasingly being challenged by deepening trade friction between key developed countries and signs of a global economic slowdown.
"My administration is putting the top policy priority on how to quickly revive economic vitality. We are doing our very best to find new growth engines by investing more in venture firms and pushing forward with plans to keep the vitality of the manufacturing sector afloat," he said.
Separately, Moon asked relevant government agencies to minimize any negative impacts of shortened working hours on SMEs, citing that the introduction of the 52 hour work week could cause them some problems.
"Again, we have to be prepared," President Moon said.
The government is trying to promote a greater work-life balance by lowering the maximum hours people can work from 68 to 40 hours per week, plus another 12 hours of overtime. Smaller firms with 50 workers or more are required to make the change, next year.
Being forced to soften the policy rollout indicates how much it was driven by the government, rather than workers some of whom are dependent upon overtime to make a decent wage. The policy was one of the key promises of the Moon administration, which said it would lead to more productivity, more jobs and, potentially, more children.
"The most important thing is that it will be a fundamental solution to protecting the lives and safety of the people by reducing the number of deaths from overwork, industrial accidents and sleep-deprived driving," Moon said, noting that he was aware that businesses were concerned about the expansion of the system.