Dereliction of duty

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Dereliction of duty

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Chang Se-jeong
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

The denuclearization of North Korea and the South Korea-U.S. alliance are surely the two top priorities for us. At the same time, however, our relationship with China and Japan has sharply soured under the Moon Jae-in administration. The head-on clash over the Korean Supreme Court’s rulings on forced labor during the colonial period has exposed Seoul’s poor handling of diplomacy over past issues. With China, South Korea has entered an uncomfortable spat over fine dust and has also shown its ineptness in environmental or disaster diplomacy. The diplomatic rows with Japan and China have begun to affect both the economy and our daily lives. The question is whether the Moon administration can deal with multiple crises.

Tokyo has responded vehemently after Korea’s top court ordered Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to compensate Koreans for their forced and unpaid labor during World War II in October last year. A month later, the Supreme Court delivered the same ruling in favor of Korean plaintiffs against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe condemned the rulings and Finance Minister Taro Aso began to list potential retaliatory actions, ranging from tariff barriers to the suspension of visas and money wiring.

Tokyo was rude to threaten its neighboring country in such a way. The chances of Japan acting out on its threat are low for the time being, but if it does, the ramifications could be huge. Young people looking for jobs in Japan due to the scarcity at home won’t be accepted. Vacationing in Japan on a visa waiver will become difficult. Over 7.5 million Koreans visited Japan last year. Director-level officials from the two governments met last week, but could not narrow their differences over the conflict over wartime labor compensation.

Japan, which forcefully occupied Korea and exploited the country during colonization, is posing as if it is the victim. The fundamental fault lies with Japan, but the Korean government should also feel responsible for causing such a baffling and vexing situation. Seoul irked Tokyo by unilaterally disbanding the foundation responsible for compensating former sex slaves according to an earlier agreement between the two countries.

The relationship with Beijing is no better. Korean companies are pulling out of China due to worsened ties. Moon received cold treatment during his visit to China in December 2017. Over the last two years, there has been little diplomatic activity between the two states. Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, paid a visit to Moon in March 2018 as a special envoy for President Xi Jinping. Yang had promised to lift retaliatory measures for Seoul’s installation of the U.S. antimissile system. A year has passed since then, but business and tourism activities have yet to be normalized. Can we entirely blame Beijing for going back on its word?

Actions to ease the dust pollution from China have also been pitiful. Various satellite images and data suggest that at least half of the pollutants of fine or ultrafine dust flew from China. Even as Beijing refuses to share its fine dust data, Seoul comes up with the reckless idea of a joint rainmaking experiment to wash away the dust clouds. How can it persuade China with such impromptu and half-baked ideas? There appears to be little strategy. Will it be any better if a bureau of China is set up in the Foreign Ministry?

East Asia has failed to shake out of common historic and environmental issues like the European Union due to lacking leadership and cooperation among the three states of Korea, China and Japan. Korea is handicapped by a bisected condition, China by a lack of democracy, and Japan by remorselessness over its past aggressions. The longstanding bitterness and distrust are behind today’s conflict over wartime labor and fine dust. Finding blame or asking for accountability won’t solve the problem. The government should base its strategy on historical and geographic grounds.

The tests on the foreign front are getting harder and harder. Yet the Moon administration has left diplomacy in the hands of select loyalists in the Blue House instead of using a wider resource pool of career and veteran diplomats.
Shunning its assets cannot help the government.

The Blue House may finally be coming around as it is trying to recruit Ban Ki-moon — a former United Nations Secretary General, who in April last year was elected to co-chair the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA), the Chinese equivalent of the World Economic Forum in Davos — as the envoy for fine dust and other air pollution issues.

JoongAng Ilbo, March 18, Page 29
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