Tensions are escalating between South Korea and Japan over historical issues that have led to an unprecedented trade row. Judging from the latest developments, if left uncontrolled, the feud could cause irrecoverable damage to bilateral relations between the two countries.
The most urgent thing is that Japan -- which unilaterally imposed export curbs on some high-tech materials used by Korean tech firms -- should refrain from taking the additional retaliatory measures it had threatened.
Also important is that both sides -- including political leaders, media and the public -- remain calm, and not try to fan hostilities toward one other, leaving the diplomats to sort it out.
The core cause of the dispute, of course, is Japan’s one-sided action to tie historical issues -- like sex slavery and forced labor -- to export controls, which could inflict serious damage to the Korean economy.
It is not hard to imagine what motives are behind the rightist nationalist administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. It may be under the impression that it is time to take a strong stand and show that Japan can no longer be rebuked and swayed by historical issues raised by Korea.
Abe and his lieutenants who have not concealed their dislike for Korea might also want to check the neighboring country’s ever-growing global influence, and not least its economic power.
It is also obvious that the Japanese side wants to use the dispute to win what it sees as a “self-pride war.” In a working-level meeting between the two sides earlier this month, Japanese officials received their Korean counterparts in a place that looked more like a storage room for unused furniture than a conference room.
The hosts did not offer to shake hands or exchange business cards. The two Japanese officials wore short-sleeved shirts, compared to their Korean guests formally dressed in dark business suits.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono also exhibited -- obviously intentionally -- high-handedness when he summoned Korean Ambassador Nam Gwan-pyo on Friday. Apparently mindful of TV cameras, Kono, who did not wear a necktie, had a grim face and even interrupted Nam when his comments were being translated. Kono said the Seoul government was “rude” to reject Tokyo’s proposal to refer the forced labor issue to an arbitration panel. That certainly was not appropriate language to be used by a minister speaking to a foreign envoy.
These episodes illustrate the Japanese government’s attitude toward the issue and the Korean government. Most of all, it wants to maximize the impact of the dispute in favor of its rightist administration, and show its people that it has the upper hand. It is bolstering anti-Korean sentiment for political purposes.
Some Japanese media, politicians and opinion leaders are joining forces. One conservative TV journalist even argued that impeaching President Moon Jae-in is the only way to save Korea-Japan relations.
It is obvious that the public here would be upset by the growing Korea-bashing campaign. More people are joining boycotts of Japanese goods, and the number of people traveling to Japan, previously a favorite destination, is plummeting.
As the current dispute was provoked by Japan’s unilateral export curbs, the heightening of anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea is unavoidable, but there should also be calls for calm and restraint.
Most worrisome is that some ill-advised senior administration officials and ruling party members -- apparently in order to rally their traditional supporters -- are fanning anti-Japanese feelings indiscriminately.
Cho Kuk, one of President Moon’s most trusted aides, is using his social media posts to fuel the flames. He called the current feud an “economic war” and said Moon is doing his utmost to tackle it as the commander-in-chief. His comments are in line with the ruling party’s opinion, which referred to the Japanese move as “economic aggression.”
Cho also said it not important whether you are a progressive or a conservative. It a matter of being a patriot or abetting an enemy, he said. It never is sensible for a top presidential aide to label a neighboring country an enemy and say only those who support the government’s arguments are patriots.
Last Friday, a 78-year-old Korean man died after setting his car on fire near the building that houses the Japanese Embassy in what his relatives and police said was a protest against Japan. His father-in-law was said to be one of the victims of forced labor during Japan’s colonial rule.
Most mainstream Korean media did not give prominent coverage of the tragic incident. The same prudence is required of political leaders and the public in both countries. The current crisis in Korea-Japan relations must be contained and the first step is to start diplomatic talks, with each side refraining from more provocative actions.