Half efforts when twice needed
The author is an international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
In March 2015, former Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo and former National Assembly Speaker Kim Soo-han met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss the “comfort women” issue. After the meeting, they met with 97-year-old former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. When they said that the talk with Abe went well, Nakasone said that he was glad it went well, but for the Korea-Japan relations to improve, Japan needed to make twice the effort of Korea.
It is the core of change in Korea-Japan relations. While a sense of guilt for the past remained in Japan, Tokyo made concessions even if Korea made somewhat excessive demands. At the time, it had a sense of responsibility. But that has changed. Japan is not even making half the effort, much less twice. Not just Abe but most Japanese feel that way.
In the meantime, Korea approaches Japan with a sense of retaliation and revenge. Approval ratings are rising as politicians in Korea and Japan invoke anti-Japanese and anti-Korean sentiments. That’s why the latest confrontation between the two countries will last longer than expected.
Some say that the confrontation will end when the Moon Jae-in administration and the Abe government end, but that’s not the case. Regardless of the administrations in either country, the situation won’t change much unless structural changes are made fundamentally.
On Friday, Japan will most likely announce its decision to exclude Korea from a list of countries eligible for preferential treatment in trade. The media calls it a second round of economic retaliation. But it is actually a follow-up to the measures announced earlier this month. The export ban on three items — materials needed for the production of semiconductors and displays — was effective immediately. In short, Abe’s second round is about to begin now, while there could be a bit of modification as a result of the upcoming Korea-U.S.-Japan meeting.
Some think Abe cannot afford to take the offensive since destroying the global semiconductor supply chain would hurt Japan more. But I don’t think Abe started the fight without such calculation. As Samsung Electronics and other Korean companies take sizeable loans in Japanese yen to build overseas plants, “follow-up measures” by Japan’s top three mega-banks could extend the retaliation to the finance sector. Then, the crisis will become uncontrollable. The pro-Japanese, anti-Japanese framework presented by the Blue House cannot solve the situation. It reminds me of the liberal administration’s dichotomy of capitalist or worker, conservative or liberal, or the haves or the have-nots. How long should we discuss what the Moon administration calls “native Japanese collaborators” in the 5G era?
The first is for President Moon Jae-in to officially propose a summit with Abe. Japan has little reason to ignore the attention of the international community and refuse, and it can also create room for the United States to step in. It can also offer a breakthrough for working-level negotiations Japan is refusing, and if Abe refuses, it will give Korea international justification to resort to a hard-line approach toward Japan. In short, it is a card that brings few downsides. While the first opportunity seems to have been missed, the Liberation Day on Aug. 15 could be a last chance to turn the tide.
The second option is sending a special envoy, though it may not be so simple. While Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon is mentioned as a special envoy, the effect is questionable. As the key men are Abe, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, Takaya Imai, the prime minister’s executive secretary, and his sponsor and Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, it would be more effective to send four envoys with a close relationship with each of them to help resolve the conflict. As the relationships of these four people is complicated, approaching them as a whole could mess up a deal. As President Moon has cancelled his vacation and is willing to resolve the issue, I have a bit of hope.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 30, Page 27