Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha left for Thailand on Wednesday to attend a series of bilateral and multilateral talks amid a trade row with Japan and limited progress in efforts to resume nuclear talks between Washington and Pyongyang.
Kang plans to attend the annual gatherings involving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bangkok, such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, which are slated to take place from Thursday to Saturday.
The minister will use the regional meetings to highlight the importance of free trade principles as part of Seoul's diplomacy to stop Japan's recent export restrictions and its consideration of additional steps, such as taking South Korea off its list of trusted trade partners, officials said.
"We need to clearly point out that these restrictive measures are unfair and let not only Japan but also many foreign ministers attending the ARF and the international community know that these measures must be stopped," she told reporters at Incheon International Airport.
Kang also plans to seize the ASEAN dialogue platform to reaffirm South Korea's commitment to strengthening relations with the 10-member regional bloc, a principal partner for its New Southern Policy.
On Thursday, Kang will attend the South Korea-ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting. The following day, she will join the ASEAN Plus Three meeting, which includes South Korea, China and Japan; the East Asia Summit session and the ASEAN Regional Forum.
On Saturday, she is to attend the South Korea-Mekong foreign ministers' meeting.
"We expect that the meetings this time will be a meaningful venue to reaffirm our government's will to further accelerate the enforcement of the New Southern Policy and elevate the cooperative ties with ASEAN," Kim In-chul, spokesman for the foreign ministry, told reporters.
"We also think that the meetings will serve as a crucial opportunity to secure the understanding and support from the international community regarding (Seoul's) policy for the denuclearization and a lasting peace on the peninsula and affirm the will of the various countries for the free trade order," he added.
At the ASEAN talks, Kang is expected to highlight the retaliatory nature of Japan's July 4 export control measure against South Korea by noting that the move runs counter to principles of free trade, a key driver of shared prosperity in East Asia.
Seoul has criticized the measure as political reprisal for last year's Supreme Court rulings that ordered Japanese firms to compensate South Korean victims of forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula.
Japan has protested the rulings, contending that all reparation issues stemming from its colonial rule were settled under a 1965 accord that normalized bilateral ties. But the court recognized victims' individual rights to claim damages.
In a move likely to further rile Seoul, Tokyo is expected to decide on Friday whether to remove South Korea from its "whitelist" of 27 countries given preferential treatment in purchasing Japanese dual-use products that can be diverted for military use.
Chances are high that Kang and her Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, will hold bilateral talks on the margins of the ASEAN meetings, Seoul officials have said, though there has been no official announcement of their meeting.
There is also a possibility that Kang, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Kono can hold trilateral talks, amid Washington's move to help its two Asian allies diplomatically settle their rancorous dispute.
Also on the sidelines of the multilateral talks, the top nuclear envoys of the three countries -- Lee Do-hoon of South Korea, Stephen Biegun of the US and Kenji Kanasugi of Japan -- could meet to discuss efforts to restart nuclear talks with the North.
Working-level negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have yet to resume although US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to re-launch them during their impromptu meeting at the Demilitarized Zone on June 30.
North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho canceled his plan to participate in the ASEAN meetings, frustrating hopes that the regional forum would set the stage for talks between Pompeo and Ri to reactivate their countries' nuclear talks. (Yonhap)