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[News Focus] Korea-Japan rift likely to be protracted

Korean ruling party chief says Tokyo undermining Moon administration

The latest rocky patch in South Korea-Japan relations appears likely to continue for some time, with neither side willing to make concessions.

The Seoul-Tokyo relations have hit a new low following Tokyo’s decision to apply standard conditions on exporting key industrial materials to South Korea, thereby increasing the import process to up to 90 days. 

Deputy national security adviser Kim Hyun-chong addresses the media on Friday. Yonhap
Deputy national security adviser Kim Hyun-chong addresses the media on Friday. Yonhap

Japan claims that the changes, which slow the importing of materials such as fluorinated polyimides, were made in in response to Seoul’s failure to ensure that potentially dangerous materials do not flow into North Korea.

However, South Korea considers the changes to be retribution for a Supreme Court ruling that found in favor of those forced into labor for Japanese firms between 1938 and 1945.

While some in Korea had interpreted Japan’s move as a ploy to consolidate conservative support ahead of Sunday’s elections, Abe does not appear likely to soften his stance despite the election win.

On Sunday, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner Komeito took 71 of the available 124 seats in the upper house election.

“Unless Korea brings a proper answer to responses that violate the Claims Settlement Agreement, constructive discussions will not be possible,” Abe said in an interview with Asahi TV on Sunday.

Abe was referring to the 1965 Korea-Japan agreement under which Japan provided financial and material aid to South Korea in compensation for its occupation of the peninsula in the first half of the 20th century. The South Korean Supreme Court, however, has ruled in recent years that the agreement does not nullify an individual’s rights to seek reparations for wrongs suffered under Japanese occupation.

Abe also reiterated that the trade measures are not retributive, and that Japan is only managing “security related trade.” The Japanese prime minister also claimed that Seoul has been rejecting Tokyo’s calls for related negotiations for three years.

He added that Tokyo will respond to Seoul once a “proper relationship of trust” is established, implying that Korea has broken the trust between the two.

Seoul’s presidential office on Monday hit back at the comments, questioning the Japanese government’s reasoning behind its measures.

“(The South Korean government) has continuously suggested taking a two-track approach, separating the past and the future in Korea-Japan relations,” Cheong Wa Dae spokesperson Ko Min-jung said Monday. She said that Seoul has responded to Japan’s claims regarding industrial materials imported from Japan leaking into North Korea, as well as to issues Tokyo has raised over the Supreme Court’s rulings on forced labor cases.

“(Japan) has raised security issues, and then historical issues, and the security issue again. Today, (Abe) again referred to historical issues, but I think (Japan) should observe the line (in diplomatic relations),” Ko said, adding that the two countries working together is in the best interests of the Korean and Japanese people.

Ko’s comment echoes those from deputy national security adviser Kim Hyun-chong’s statement Friday, in which he said that Japan switching back and forth between the two issues makes it “very difficult to figure out exactly what Japan’s position is.”

South Korean officials including President Moon Jae-in have raised a number of possibilities behind Japan’s actions.

Speaking at a meeting with his aides on July 15, Moon raised the possibility of the actions being aimed at hampering South Korea’s economic growth. Saying the measures are aimed at the country’s semiconductors industry, Moon said they are “tantamount to blocking our economy’s growth.”

As Korea and Japan continue to draw a parallel, the possibility of Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon taking a bigger role in the issue has been gaining some attention.

The idea of Lee being sent to Japan as a special envoy was raised in the political arena, including from veteran lawmaker Rep. Park Jie-won of the minor opposition Party for Democracy and Peace. Just hours after returning to Korea from an overseas trip Monday, Lee met with Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and chief of the staff for policy Kim Sang-jo to discuss related issues, further fueling speculations he will play a more direct role. Cheong Wa Dae, however, repeated that while it is open to all measures, including sending a special envoy to Japan, any steps will be carefully considered.

South Korea’s ruling Democratic Party of Korea is taking a harder line, branding Japan’s actions as an “economic invasion,” and going as far to say that Japan could be seeking a change of government in South Korea.

“(Japan’s) economic invasion of Korea will begin in earnest,” Democratic Party Chairman Rep. Lee Hae-chan said Monday, citing Sunday’s Japan’s election results.

“The government, the party and the people must have extraordinary determination in responding to Japan’s tyranny that is destabilizing even (regional) security order,” he said, saying that Japan is expected to take further measures in late July or early August.

On Friday, Lee claimed that Japan’s moves can only be interpreted as an attempt at undermining the Moon administration, citing a report by the Asahi Shimbun daily.

The article had quoted a Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry official as saying that trade curbing measures will stay in place as long as the Moon Jae-in administration remains in power.

By Choi He-suk (