Getting emotional won’t help
The author is the editor-in-chief of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Japan’s recent implementation of tighter export restrictions on key materials for semiconductor production to Korean companies is a meticulously prepared strike in an economic war. Japan is demanding the Moon Jae-in administration surrender because it took no action, Tokyo says, on the Supreme Court’s rulings ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to forced labor victims. Japan regards the ruling as ignoring the 1965 Basic Treaty between Seoul and Tokyo, which declared the settlement of all problems going back to colonial days. If Korea is excluded from Japan’s special treatment on strategic goods trade, full-scale retaliation will follow and the Korean economy will face serious trouble down the road.
Japan is a country that studies Korea deeply. After witnessing the brutal reality of the Japanese invasion of Joseon from 1592 to 1598, Ryu Seong-ryong, a high-ranking official at the time, wrote the “Book of Corrections” based on self-examination in order to prevent such an invasion in the future. But the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) banned the book, calling it a record of humiliation. That was no different from the act of burying one’s head in the sand.
But the book became a bestseller — and a must-read — in Japan and China. During the invasion, Japan sent 170,000 troops to Joseon, captured two princes as prisoners of war and cornered King Seonjo on the brink of defection to Ming China. After the Ming Dynasty intervened, the war became an international war for East Asia, stopping Japan from conquering Joseon. Then Japan studied Joseon more thoroughly, and in the early 20th century, it finally colonized the neighbor.
Korea wants the United States to stop the trade war started by Japan. Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Hyun-chong visited Washington, but the U.S. response was cold. Korean diplomats contacted U.S. officials after the Japanese Embassy in the United States had reached out to the White House, State Department and Defense Department to explain its position. Based on the experience of the war in the 16th century, Japan learned that victory in the latest economic war depends on the intention of Korea’s ally and clearly made full preparations.
During the process of colonizing Joseon in the early 20th century, Japan showed that it makes meticulous preparations once it sets a goal. First, it defeated the Qing Dynasty, a patron of Joseon and a superpower of Asia. Before facing up to Russia — the final obstacle — Japan formed an alliance with the British Empire.
The Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet could not stop at the colonial ports of the British Empire, so it had to sail the Cape of Good Hope at the southern end of the African continent. After seven months of sailing, it finally arrived in the waters off the Tsushima Islands nearly exhausted. The Japanese Navy crushed the Baltic Fleet on May 27, 1905 thanks to the Anglo-Japanese alliance. In July 1907, Prime Minister Taro Katsura and U.S. Secretary of War William Taft agreed that Japan would control Joseon in return for the United States controlling the Philippines.
To control Korea, Japan devised various strategies. After President Kim Young-sam vowed to “teach Japan a lesson” in 1995, Japan helped to force Korea into the foreign exchange crisis in 1997. Can we still treat Japan lightly?
Japan has clearly violated World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations by making an economic retaliation for the forced labor issue and driving the global semiconductor market into chaos. But Tokyo does not even blink. The WTO is being shaken by a lack of cooperation by the United States. In a crucial appeals panel, four out of seven seats are still vacant. By the end of this year, there will be only one member from China. The vacancies continued because the United States continues to oppose selecting the successors.
While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spent time with U.S. President Donald Trump for five rounds of golf, how can we be sure that they did not make another Taft-Katsura agreement? Abe meets the Asia-Pacific Bureau director of the Foreign Ministry — the diplomat in charge of Korea affairs — over three times a week. Korea’s Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha vowed that Korea will act if Japan makes economic retaliations. But when Japan actually took action, she left for Africa, not Washington or Tokyo. Korean diplomats who went to Tokyo to consult on its strategic goods export control returned empty-handed.
The key is not the economy. Japan is demanding answers from the Moon administration on how it will handle the forced labor issue and its decision to scrap the agreement to settle the comfort women issue. If those problems can be resolved, economic retaliations will also be resolved.
Japan has the original sin of colonial rule. As a result, Koreans who want to reach out to Japan first have to fight their images as Japanese collaborators. Local politicians will probably worry about the aftermath in the upcoming elections.
But President Moon must think differently. He must propose to Abe to meet anywhere for the sake of national interests. Japan is hateful, but Korea, clearly, offered the cause this time. Moon must meet Abe to put out the immediate fire.
Before the meeting, the government must come up with ways to smoothly resolve the forced labor issue. A bipartisan expert committee can be set up under the president. If we are making a counter-retaliation based on emotional nationalism, it will only help Abe and the right wing of Japan get closer to revising the pacifist constitution of Japan.
We must make a cold-headed judgment. After World War II, Japan offered us its advanced technologies and helped Korea’s rapid growth. The United States, China and North Korea can hardly ignore South Korea as long as it is Japan’s friend. If we become a respected country, Japanese right wing’s dangerous dream will be stopped. We had a painful history of putting the entire nation into agony due to a lack of intelligence and strategy. Such a tragedy must not be repeated in the 21st century.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 15, Page 31