South Korea and Japan appear poised to escalate tit for tat after Japan tightened its export controls on high-tech materials bound for Korea.
The Japanese government has taken a tough stance, saying it has no mind to revoke the measure targeting Korea’s manufacturers of semiconductors and displays.
The Korean government condemned the export curbs as unreasonable economic retaliation and vowed to take “corresponding measures” unless Japan retracts them. It also plans to take the issue to the World Trade Organization.
President Moon Jae-in will reportedly hold a meeting with chairpersons of top 30 business groups this week. Moon is intent on reflecting their opinions in the government responses to Japan’s economic sanctions.
Given Tokyo’s hard-line stance, however, it is questionable if the government can figure out corresponding measures strong enough to make Japan drop the measure immediately.
We cannot but criticize the Moon administration for letting the situation turn this sour. It has paid little attention to its relations with the Japanese government. Rather, it has fanned anti-Japanese sentiment in a drive to eliminate the pro-Japanese vestige as an evil from the past to be swept away.
Koreans may feel better if the government lands a counterpunch, but expanding tit for tat without retreat or escape routes will only inflict hard-to-recover damage on both sides, as Korea and Japan are economically intertwined.
If they keep exchanging retaliatory measures against each other and conflicts turn into an emotional battle, the situation will get out of control.
The Korean government should be cool-headed. It may feel pressure to take strong countermeasures. But it must not act rashly. Elaborate plans for follow-up actions must be taken into full account. Protracted exchanges of sanctions can turn into trade wars. This must be avoided.
The issue of Japan’s export controls can be best resolved diplomatically. Economic retaliation victimizes companies, but companies are not in any position to solve political or diplomatic problems, nor do they have the power to do so. They are innocent victims of politics. The one who has tied a knot must untie it.
It is hard to deny that the current conflicts are ascribable to the lack of communication and mutual distrust between the leaders of the two countries.
Korean Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwang-pyo said during his visit to a Japanese news media outlet on Thursday that he would try to open a way for a Korea-Japan summit. That comes as a timely remark.
Practically, a better alternative than summit diplomacy is nowhere to be found.
Then it becomes important to find justifications for negotiations. The government must work out proposals acceptable to both sides. Cheong Wa Dae and the Foreign Ministry need to reflect on how the situation has come to this. Japan’s export regulations stem from the Korean court rulings, upheld by the Supreme Court, awarding damages to victims of wartime forced labor.
The Moon administration needs to refrain from insisting there is nothing it can do about a judicial decision, but instead should try to find a creative diplomatic solution -- one that persuades Japan to revoke its export curbs and respects the intent of the court rulings at the same time.
Korea and Japan are closely related in many fields, not least in security and economy. History is one of the most sensitive issues involving the two countries. Korea and Japan cannot live together as enemies. To sustain cooperative relations, it is important to manage history issues lest they turn into an emotional tit for tat. They must not be used politically, either.
The first thing for senior Korean government officials to do is to contact their Japanese counterparts publicly or privately and increase their communications. They should know the exact intent behind the Japanese measure, and find a clue to dialogue.
Naturally this is what the Foreign Ministry should do. If it wants to facilitate the process of dialogue, it would do well to utilize civilian diplomatic channels. It also needs to positively consider asking US President Donald Trump to mediate.
It will serve the interests of both countries to avoid escalating mutual retaliations and solve issues diplomatically. Diplomacy is the only practical way to prevent them from going down the tubes together.