The country marks the 74th anniversary of its liberation from Japan’s colonial rule Thursday amid Tokyo’s increasingly hostile stance against Seoul over rekindled historical disputes between the two sides.
It is unreasonable and damaging for both economies that Japan has placed tighter trade controls on South Korea in an apparent reprisal against last year’s ruling by the Supreme Court here that ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean victims of wartime forced labor.
Anti-Japanese sentiment is rising in South Korea, with many people joining a boycott of Japanese products and canceling trips there.
Still, Seoul needs to deliver a measured response to Tokyo’s moves, as it stands to suffer more in practical terms from an escalation of tit-for-tat measures by both sides.
What South Korea should perceive is that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government is attempting to reconstruct the decades-long framework of bilateral ties.
It should be noted that this attempt is threatening South Korea’s economic future while President Moon Jae-in’s government in Seoul remains preoccupied with reopening historical issues with Japan.
Tokyo’s export restrictions seem to go beyond an unreasonable retaliation against Seoul’s handling of the forced labor issue and have an ulterior motive to hold back South Korea from taking a lead in hi-tech sectors.
The Abe administration also appears to be trying to push aside South Korea from a new security network being built in the Indo-Pacific region. Seoul itself remains reluctant to join the alliance, which would link the US, Japan, India and Australia to keep China’s rising power in check.
What disappoints Seoul is Washington’s stance that can be seen as acquiescing to the Abe administration’s measures to increase pressure on South Korea.
The US may share the need with Japan to send a warning against what they regard as the Moon government’s position biased toward North Korea.
The trade row between South Korea and Japan, if anything, could also serve its business interests. A disruption in supplies of semiconductors and displays made by South Korean companies due to Japan’s curbs on exports of key materials would have limited consequences for US tech firms. Rather, American chipmakers would benefit from it.
South Korea should now recognize that its preoccupation with the unfortunate history shared with Japan is prompting Tokyo to move to thwart its advancement in hi-tech sectors and rattle its security foundation.
Responding to this challenge requires a calm and strategic approach rather than emotional and impromptu reaction.
It would play into Abe’s hands if South Korea sought to discard the framework for the relationship with Japan based on a 1965 accord that normalized ties between the two countries.
Over the past decades since the diplomatic normalization, South Korea has narrowed the economic gap with Japan remarkably.
Its gross domestic product was less than 4 percent of Japan’s in 1965, but the proportion was close to a third last year. Its per capita income grew from $108 to $31,346 over the cited period, while the corresponding figure for Japan rose from $933 to $39,306.
Japan’s trade restrictions show South Korea remains more vulnerable in the interconnected industrial supply chains between the two countries.
It is economically unviable to localize the production of all key parts and materials. Still, Tokyo’s latest moves might serve to encourage the South Korean government and businesses to come out of complacency and strive to reduce their technological reliance on Japan.
At this point, South Koreans need to ask themselves whether they have made serious efforts in the right direction to ensure a secure and prosperous future. They should be determined to redouble efforts to win against Japan in the race for the future, not fret over issues stemming from the past.
In this regard, the Moon government should make a fundamental shift in its attitude toward handling state affairs from backward-looking to forward-looking.
Over the past two years since Moon took office in 2017, his government has set sights on the past in dealing with economic, industrial and labor issues as well as relations with Japan. This inflexible approach focused on highlighting what it views as past wrongdoings is far from instrumental in moving forward the nation and carrying out Moon’s pledge that “we will not lose to Japan again.”
The Moon government should accelerate labor and regulatory reforms despite objections from vested interests in order to lift barriers to corporate activities.
At the same time, it should be more active and creative in finding a diplomatic solution to the drawn-out discord with Tokyo to prevent it from inflicting further damages on local industries and weakening Seoul’s security foundation.