One good way to resolve a bilateral dispute is to leave the issue to the judgement of an independent third party. This could be applied to both individuals and nations.
It is against this backdrop that the Seoul government asked the World Trade Organization to look into Japan’s recent decision to impose export curbs on three key industrial materials bound for South Korea.
In the same vein, the South Korean government called for a probe by a third-party panel on Japan’s allegations that some Japanese materials that could be used to produce weapons made their way to North Korea through South Korean firms.
As the allegations -- which lack evidence -- faced a backlash, the Japanese government took one step back, saying that it did not pinpoint North Korea, but kept insisting that South Korea’s export control on materials that can be used for conventional weapons is not being managed well.
In short, Tokyo still wants to justify its decision to restrict exports of three types key chemical materials used in memory chips and displays -- fluorinated polyimides, photoresist and hydrogen fluoride -- by linking the case to security issues. Initially, Japan did not hide what was the main motive for the export restrictions. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other Japanese officials publicly said they were taking the action since trust between the two countries has been damaged because of historical issues. Commonly cited by the Japanese side was the South Korean top court’s ruling that ordered Japanese companies to compensate for the victims of Korean forced laborers during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea. Also cited was the Seoul government’s decision to revoke a 2015 agreement on the resolution of the issue of military sex slavery during World War II.
As the unilateral action faced criticism at home and abroad, some Japanese officials, politicians and media began raising allegations that South Korea was exporting strategic materials from Japan to North Korea in violation of the four export control regimes and the UN-led sanctions.
Indeed, Abe, while commenting on the export curbs, said that South Korea should stick to international sanctions on North Korea. Some politicians and media also alleged that strategic materials made in Japan were smuggled into North Korea via South Korea.
Those allegations -- some based on past data on the South Korean government’s crackdown on exporters -- lacked concrete evidence of the Seoul government’s involvement and it is not hard to guess why Tokyo made such allegations.
The Japanese side was apparently taking advantage of the Moon Jae-in government’s engagement policy toward North Korea, which sometimes drew criticism that it could cause cracks in the UN-led international sanctions. Japan was one of the harshest critics of moves to relieve sanctions in the absence of substantial progress in denuclearizing the North.
Abe and his lieutenants in the government and the ruling party must have believed that tying the export curbs with North Korea could strengthen domestic support for them as most Japanese people are very sensitive to security threats from North Korea.
In the face of the growing backlash, Japanese government officials who met their South Korean counterparts in Tokyo on Friday, said their government had nothing to do with the allegations involving North Korea. But they still maintained the position that Seoul had problems with controlling exports of sensitive security-related materials.
Then there is no reason for the Japanese government to ignore South Korea’s proposal -- made by President Moon’s senior security aide -- to ask a panel of UN experts or other international bodies to investigate export controls of both South Korea and Japan.
Japan demanded that South Korea respond to its proposal to have a third-party arbitration panel take up the forced labor issue by Thursday this week. It could respond beforehand to Seoul’s offer to conduct an independent investigation on export controls.