Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel talks to VOA Persian at a Rayburn House Office Building event by the Organization of Iranian American Communities in Washington, Dec. 11, 2018.
Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel talks to VOA Persian at a Rayburn House Office Building event by the Organization of Iranian American Communities in Washington, Dec. 11, 2018.

Christy Lee contributed to this report.

WASHINGTON — A leading member of the U.S. Congress is calling for the Trump administration to do more to mediate a dispute between two of America's closest allies in Asia: South Korea and Japan.

Eliot Engel, a Democrat and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told VOA the United States should not take sides in the dispute, which dates from Japan's occupation of the Korean peninsula before World War II.

"I think it would be a good idea" for the United States to serve as a mediator, Engel said. "I don't know if President [Donald] Trump doesn't want to play it, and you can't force him to. But I think it's a good thing. We have a stake in a healthy South Korea and healthy Japan and having the two of them go at each other's throats doesn't benefit us or them." 

Trump said earlier this month that South Korean President Moon Jae-in asked him to help mediate the dispute but that he has too many issues to deal with at hand.

"I said, 'How many things do I have to get involved in?'" Trump continued, "I'm involved with North Korea. I'm involved with so many different things. We just did a trade deal, a great trade deal with South Korea, but [Moon] tells me that they have a lot of friction going on now with respect to trade." 

Last week, however, Trump said, "If they need me, I'm there."

President Donald Trump talks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before departing to Japan for the G-20 summit, June 26, 2019.

Trump's national security adviser John Bolton visited Seoul and Tokyo last week, attempting to mediate while maintaining neutrality.  

The trade dispute between two of America's economic partners has been boiling up since early July when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe placed export controls on three high-tech items to South Korea.

The restrictions kicked in on July 4, and now Japanese companies need to obtain government approvals to export materials that South Korean firms need to make semiconductors, memory chips, and displays used in smartphones and other high-tech devices.

The tension is expected to rise with Tokyo's plan to expand the export restrictions by removing Seoul from its so-called "white list" of countries that have special favored status of importing sensitive Japanese products without a permit. 

The decision could come as early as Aug. 2, and if Tokyo approves the new restriction, Japanese companies will need to obtain government license to export to South Korea any items that could potentially be used to make weapons and military products.

National security adviser John Bolton talks to reporters about Venezuela, outside the White House, May 1, 2019, in Washington.

The underlying cause of the trade dispute is rooted in their historical animosity stemming from the Japanese colonial period between 1910 and 1945 when Japan conscripted Koreans as forced laborer to work for its companies.  

South Korea has been arguing Tokyo's export control is a politically motivated economic retaliation against a South Korean court ruling last year that ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to South Korean victims.

Japan has contended that compensation for South Korean forced laborers was settled in a treaty that normalized the relations between the two countries in 1965. It also claims that its export control move is in response to Seoul's violation of international sanctions imposed on North Korea. 

Japanese officials said products sensitive to its national security were exported to South Korea in the past without sufficient management by its companies, and some of those Japanese products South Korea imported have ended up in North Korea.  

Engel also took a jab at Trump's North Korea policy, noting Trump's repeated efforts to reach out to Pyongyang.

"I wish he would reach out to Seoul a little more," Engel said. "I know the president likes to meet with Kim Jong Un. I don't think that that somehow gained something. I haven't finally seen any gain from that. I think that maybe the time would be better spent if we work with our traditional allies, who we trust and they trust us." 

A South Korea's trade official said on Monday that Seoul is ready to discuss its trade disputes with Japan, but Tokyo rejected the call for talks. 

Seoul is expected to garner regional support to resolve its trade dispute with Tokyo at the ministerial level meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) slated to take in Bangkok next week.