The unprecedented economic war Japan started against South Korea has taken relations between the two countries to the worst level since 1965, when they normalized official ties in an agreement to put the 1910-45 colonial period behind them. It is highly likely that the war may still escalate and continue for some time.
All considered, the Japanese government must be condemned for starting the war by putting export curbs on materials needed for chips and displays last month, and then deciding to rid South Korea of the preferential export control treatment given to countries on its whitelist. There are many solid reasons to condemn the unilateral action.
First of all, it is wrong for Japan to resort to economic retaliation as a means to pressure Korea over historical issues like forced labor during its colonial rule of the peninsula.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other Japanese officials had already indicated -- at times even in unequivocal words -- that the Korean top court’s ruling that ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean victims of forced labor in Japan led them to take the retaliatory action. It is simply comical that they now insist it had nothing to do with the issue.
Secondly, Japan’s export curbs targeting Korea, in citation of security, run counter to the global free trade order on which the Japanese economy has thrived. It is ironic that the Abe administration began restricting exports to Korea shortly after the prime minister hosted the annual G-20 summit in Osaka, where he emphasized the importance of free, fair and indiscriminative trade.
Impact from the Japanese action will go beyond the two countries and it will damage the global trade order and the international value chain. This woe coming on the heels of an escalating trade conflict between the US and China has already started to affect some financial markets.
Japan’s rejection of the Korean proposal to hold diplomatic negotiations on both the export control and forced labor issues as well as a mediation effort by the US also clearly deserving of criticism. Tokyo should heed the call to come to the negotiation table.
On the security side, the economic war between the two neighbors could not come at a worse time, as they are key players, along with the US, in efforts to denuclearize North Korea and maintain peace and stability in the region, in which China and Russia are trying to exert greater influence.
All these issues combine to pose grave challenges to South Koreans. Political leadership -- the Moon Jae-in administration -- must stand at the forefront of the nation’s efforts to overcome the challenges with resoluteness and prudence.
It was right that Moon stood firm and publicly condemned and warned the Abe administration. Stating that South Korea is not what it used to be, he said Japan too would suffer, vowing to take “corresponding” measures step by step.
The Seoul government promptly announced it would likewise remove Japan from its own whitelist, on which 29 countries benefit from preferential export controls. It is inevitable for the Seoul government to at least take such a corresponding action.
Also important is to arouse international attention to the illegitimacy of the Japanese government’s actions. The most urgent task is to accelerate scrutiny by the World Trade Organization.
Statements made by the Singaporean and Chinese foreign ministers in a recent regional ministerial forum held in Bangkok also remind us of the importance of letting the world fairly understand the imprudence and preposterousness of the Japanese actions.
After the South Korean and Japanese foreign ministers exchanged statements on the export curbs, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that Japan -- instead of dropping any country from its white list -- should add to the list for the sake of trust, economic interdependence and co-prosperity.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi indicated his support for the Singaporean minister’s suggestion, saying that regional issues should be settled through “goodwill and trust.” Wang also called on the regional countries to uphold free trade and facilitate regional economic integration.
These indicate that sensible members of the international community will stand behind Korea at least pertaining to the two Japanese actions taken to restrict exports of Japanese strategic goods to South Korea. That could be a very effective weapon to win over the war that has just started.