A national crisisAs expected, Japan removed South Korea from a so-called white list of countries exempted from scrutiny of dual-purpose items and technologies for export on security grounds. The move follows Tokyo’s implementation on July 4 of export curbs on three chemicals used in chip and display production to Korea. President Moon Jae-in vowed tit-for-tat actions. He told a cabinet meeting that the government must incrementally build up sanctions. “If Japan intentionally strikes our economy, it should also bear the consequences,” he said. The two neighboring states have entered their first-ever trade war.
Despite ups and downs, the two countries have developed bilateral ties since normalization of relations in 1965. Economic warfare is a lose-lose situation no matter who bears the greater brunt.
Both governments share blame. The Shinzo Abe administration cannot be excused for resorting to economic sanctions due to disgruntlement over the Korean Supreme Court rulings on wartime forced labor. It is wrong to translate political affairs onto the economic front. Abe is contradicting the “free, fair and indiscriminative trade principles” he extolled during a G-20 summit he hosted in Osaka in June. No matter how Tokyo paints it, the action is undeniably retaliation for the court rulings. The fact that Tokyo insists on reexamination of export controls for security only underscores the contradiction. Tokyo must end the retaliations and try to work out a diplomatic solution.
Seoul also is at fault for turning a blind eye to Tokyo’s fury after the first landmark ruling last October. Many warned that the rightist Japanese government would not sit quietly. But Seoul readied no contingency plans. It must get away from its habit of wishful thinking.
Moon may have further fueled anti-Japanese sentiment through emotional statements after the Japanese government started the new export controls. But there are no measures that can cushion the impact on Korean companies, the people and the economy. He vowed “strong actions in response to Japanese retaliation.” But the government must present feasible plans for action to earn public support.
Seoul also must be more discreet on the security front. Some in the ruling party and government have been calling for suspension of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia). But it cannot be denied that Seoul benefits more from a military intelligence-sharing agreement than Tokyo. Walking out of the deal cannot be smart. The agreement was signed at the request from Washington for a tighter tripartite alliance. If Korea leaves the Gsomia with Japan, its relationship with the U.S. could be damaged.
A full trade war has become unavoidable. This unprecedented setback has come at a time when the economy is weak. Politicians must put aside political differences and help deal with a national crisis.
JoongAng Sunday, Aug. 3, Page 30