Abe’s unilateralism

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Abe’s unilateralism


Lee Chul-ho
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In the recently concluded SBS drama “Nokdu Flower,” Yoshimasa Oshima, Japanese commander of the Oshima Combined Brigade, was seen invading Korea’s Gyeongbok Palace in 1894 during the Donghak Rebellion and threatening Gojong, the last Korean king of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). A pupil of Shoin Yoshida, who advocated the invasion of Korea, Oshima also oversaw Manchuria as governor-general of Gwandong, while Korean independence activist Ahn Jung-geun assassinated Japanese Prince Ito Hirobumi in 1909 and died in Lushun Prison. Oshima’s great great grandson is current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II, Japanese conservative forces were split into two groups. The group led by Yoshida Shigeru, who served as prime minister from 1946 to 1947 and from 1948 to 1954, called on Japan to adopt the pacifist constitution and focus on economic development. The moderate conservatives acknowledged American hegemony and refused to be tethered to the past. The other group led by Nobusuke Kishi, who served as prime minister from 1957 to 1960, constantly looked for a chance to reclaim Japan’s glory in Asia. Kishi was imprisoned as a Class A war criminal after World War II before he was released by the U.S. government. He went on to play a key role in the Liberal Democratic Party. His grandson happens to be Abe.

Perhaps Abe was born with a genetic urge to amend Japan’s constitution and cause trouble with Korea. According to a 2016 book on Abe, which title roughly translates as “Shinzo Abe, the Mask of Silence,” the author, a Japanese journalist, said Abe stood out from 1993 when he was elected to the first district of Yamaguchi Prefecture. While other first-term lawmakers humbly said in their victory speeches that they were inexperienced and would learn from senior lawmakers, Abe was quoted as saying he became a lawmaker to change the Japanese constitution, and that he wants to establish an independent constitution that was not forced upon Japan by the United States.

The Korean Peninsula has been Abe’s stepping stone for political gains. After Junichiro Koizumi became Japanese prime minister in 2001, Abe was chosen to serve as the deputy chief cabinet secretary. In 2002, when the first Japan-North Korea summit was held in Pyongyang, Abe accompanied Koizumi to the North Korean capital and raised the issue of Japanese abductees in the North, leading Japan’s hard-line North Korea policy. When he returned home, Abe was lauded for tackling the issue and rose to become the secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party. In 2006, at age 52, he became the prime minister of Japan.

Experts in Korean-Japanese relations believe that the Korean forced labor issue won’t be resolved easily because Abe will probably try to use the friction between the two countries to amend the Japanese constitution. Even if both nations manage to start negotiations on the issue around July 2020, when the Tokyo Summer Olympics begin, there’s a high chance that the issue will resurface later in the future.


A scene from the SBS drama “Nokdu Flower” shows Japanese forces breaking into Korea’s Gyeongbok Palace. The infiltration was led by Yoshimasa Oshima, Japanese commander of the Oshima Combined Brigade, pictured far left. [SCREEN CAPTURE FROM SBS]

Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have opposite characters. Harvard Professor Graham Allison, author of the book “Destined for War,” once pointed out that a significant cause of the Thucydides Trap is miscalculation, and that tragedy occurs when a country overestimates its power while underestimating the power of another country. Japan is underestimating South Korea, and the Moon administration recently responded by floating the possibility of scrapping the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) — which is a dangerous gamble.

Behind Abe’s export restrictions on Korea is, partially, the changed international trade environment. U.S. President Donald Trump has highlighted the concepts of aggressive unilateralism and bilateral negotiations in international trade. It’s time for Seoul to reference the 1985 U.S.-Japan semiconductor trade dispute. In the mid-1980s, the global semiconductor market began to plunge, and Intel and AMD were both bowing out of the dynamic random access memory (DRAM) business while Texas Instruments (TI) and Motorola were reducing production and laying off huge numbers of workers. Japanese semiconductor companies dumped memory chips in the U.S. market, leading the United States to suffer great trade deficits.

Laura Tyson, a professor of business at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote in her 1993 book “Who’s Bashing Whom” that the U.S. government must confront Japan’s unfair trade tactics with a strategic trade policy, pointing out that the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) cannot solve non-tariff barriers in bilateral trade. Tyson argued that the United States should engage in bilateral trade negotiations with Japan instead of trying to solve the issue through a multilateral agreement.

Taking a cue from Tyson, the Ronald Reagan administration announced its intention to make more frequent use of Section 301 of the 1974 U.S. Trade Act, which allowed the U.S. to take retaliatory action to remove a practice of a foreign government that violated an international trade agreement or burdened U.S. commerce.

On Sept. 22, 1985, the Plaza Accord was signed between the United States, Japan, France, West Germany and the United Kingdom to increase the value of the Japanese and German currencies relative to the dollar. A while later, President Reagan said in a speech that free trade must be fair trade, and that if the United States let other countries copy its own products, it would be putting its own future at risk. Reagan stressed he wouldn’t idly sit by watching American companies suffer.

In 1986, the five-year U.S.-Japan Semiconductor Agreement was signed, through which Tokyo agreed “to promote the sales of American-made memory chips in Japan in an effort to gain at least 10 percent of the Japanese market for the Americans.” The first through third slots of the world’s top semiconductor suppliers were all Japanese companies when the agreement was signed — NEC, Toshiba and Hitachi — but in 1993, that order changed to Intel, NEC and Motorola. But such a change was not solely due to the U.S.-Japan Semiconductor Agreement. What impacted that change even more was the fact that Microsoft Windows and Intel’s central processing unit (CPU) rose to seize global hegemony in the new IT market as more people started to use personal computers.

The Trump administration is returning to the past, trying to sign one-on-one trade deals with other countries, in contrast to the Clinton and Obama administrations that made use of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, World Trade Organization (WTO), North American Free Trade Agreement and Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership. Trump once said of countries like China that they talk about free trade, but actually abide to agreements that only benefit their economies, stressing now was the time to put America first. Those remarks echo Reagan’s statement from three decades earlier.

Abe is trying to use this change in the global trade environment to pick on South Korea. The problem is media outlets from around the world did not hesitate to criticize Abe when Tokyo recently announced its export restrictions against Seoul.

But the conflict between Tokyo and Seoul will not easily be resolved even if Seoul tries to file a suit against Tokyo with the WTO. It’s dubious whether the Trump administration would volunteer to mediate between the two countries, given its own preference for unilateralism. Foreign Policy analyzed that Trump may ask for Seoul to pay a higher share for the stationing of U.S. forces in Korea or make more concessions in future trade deals in return for his mediation.

In order for Seoul to find a solution, it should keep in mind that Abe will want to drag the issue on. The Korean government has to counteract calmly while meticulously calculating national interests, putting any ideology or national sentiment aside. Luckily, Moon’s secretary for political affairs, Kang Gi-jung, wrote last week on Facebook that Moon told local government office chiefs over lunch that everyone was taking his previous comment about Admiral Yi Sun-shin too seriously. Moon, according to Kang, said he thinks Japan’s economic retaliations should be handled diplomatically. That is a relief.
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