Japan is taking steps to remove South Korea from a list of countries being provided preferential export treatment for Japanese-made strategic goods. Tokyo may well stop the move because it lacks legitimacy and would only further worsen the situation.
If the Japanese government pushes ahead with the plan, the removal of South Korea from the 27-country whitelist would take effect in mid-August.
There is no doubt that the new export control, following curbs already imposed on three key materials for producing chips and displays, would batter Korean industries.
A report from the Korea Strategic Trade Institute said that at least 1,100 items would be affected. Experts noted that the exact scope of the negative effect to the Korean economy is hard to predict because Japan could arbitrarily apply the regulations.
As President Moon Jae-in aptly warned, any such situation would damage the Japanese economy as well. Relevant Japanese firms will face losses and those who rely on Korean suppliers will suffer too.
Besides, if Japan does take Korea off the whitelist, the Seoul government, as Moon warned, would not be able to sit idle. What Korea has endured so far in Japan’s unilateral action on three high-tech materials is enough to warrant a case with the World Trade Organization.
But additional Japanese actions will most likely force Seoul to take similar economic retaliation, which would worsen the situation and cause mutual damage to both countries’ economies. Regional and global economies would suffer, since the two major Asian economies have many global companies.
The Japanese plan to remove South Korea from the whitelist concerning the exports of strategic goods lacks legitimacy. In the initial stage, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that the top Korean court’s ruling that ordered Japanese companies to compensate victims of Korean forced labor during the colonial period damaged trust between the two countries. He made it clear that his government was imposing export curbs on the three materials because it did not have confidence in the way the Korean government was managing them.
Then Abe tried to link the export controls to North Korea, calling on South Korea to faithfully abide by the UN-led international sanctions on the North’s nuclear and missile provocations. In tandem with the prime minister, Japanese politicians and media raised allegations -- without convincing evidence -- that some Japan-made materials were sneaked into the North via South Korea.
There is no doubt that the Abe administration wants to justify its restriction of exports of strategic goods to South Korea by raising the possibility of illegal transfer of them to North Korea.
The irony, however, is that reports show that it was Japan, not South Korea, which is more vulnerable to funneling banned materials and goods into North Korea.
Most authoritative reports came from the UN panel of experts, which tracked illegal shipments to North Korea. Its reports for 2010 through 2019 showed that Japan exported strategic items and luxury goods to North Korea over the past several years in violation of the UN-led sanctions.
According to the 10 reports, sensitive equipment, materials and luxury goods that made their way from Japan to North Korea included commercial radar antennas, which were installed in North Korean naval vessels and anti-ship missiles.
The UN panel also said that banned parts made by Japanese firms were found in a North Korean unmanned aerial vehicle whose wreckage was found in South Korea. Indeed, South Korean authorities recovered Japanese-made engines, cameras and batteries from two North Korean unmanned spy aircraft that crashed in the South in 2013 and 2014.
The UN reports showed that Japan also exported banned luxury goods to North Korea mostly between 2008 and 2009, including luxury sedans, cigarettes, alcohol, pianos and cosmetics.
Media reports on the UN’s findings followed allegations by Rep. Ha Tae-keung that Japanese authorities uncovered similar cases of banned items having been transferred to North Korea.
Japan has kept silent on the UN reports and the Korean lawmaker’s statement. Some officials have only said that allegations involving North Korea had been raised by the media.
Then on Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that his government was not restricting exports to South Korea in reprisal for the forced labor issue. This also contradicts what Abe had said. Japan ought to be frank or find more reasonable ground for its exports controls. If not, it should ditch the plan to bump South Korea from the whitelist.