Relationships between South Korea and Japan have been deteriorating to an unprecedented state as conflicts between the two countries, which started over the issues of the past history including the Japanese military’s comfort women and the judgment on compensations for forced labor, escalated into a full-scale economic war. In particular, the relationship is headed toward the worst situation with a forecast that the Japanese government will exclude South Korea from its whitelist that can enjoy simplified export procedures starting from early August following its restrictions on exporting three semiconductor materials to South Korea.
Tokyo announced that it would not come to the negotiation table with Seoul if the latter comes up with a proactive solution. Under these circumstances, antipathy between the two countries is growing with a boycott of Japanese goods in South Korea among others. The Korean economic world has been hardest hit and is worrying about how to overcome the situation.
The conflict was triggered by a ruling of the Supreme Court of Korea on compensations for forced labor after the inauguration of the Moon Jae-in administration. Moon has ignored the issue, just saying that the ruling is a judicial decision. The Abe government is also only pressuring Seoul to bring a solution while doing nothing.
Both the Moon government and the Abe cabinet are focusing on the interest of their regimes in handling the historic issue. It seems that the Moon government believes that it will lose nothing in the domestic political world by taking an anti-Japan posture. President Moon has been raising the level of his hard-line remarks about Japan since delivering a message about the 100th anniversary of the March 1 Independence Movement this year. Anti-Japan winds began to blow, sending Moon's approval rating soaring. As a result of anti-market and anti-enterprise policy experiments, the private economy has been totaled in two years and Korea's airspace was invaded by China and Russia like their playgrounds. Recently, the Democratic Research Institute, a think-tank of the ruling Democratic Party headed by Yang Jeong-cheol, one of the closest aides to President Moon, produced a report that said that the Korea-Japan conflict will play for the Democratic Party in the general elections to be held next year. The research report was emailed to all of 128 lawmakers of the Democratic Party, creating a political firestorm.
Japanese Prime Minister Abe also may have calculated that using anti-Korea sentiments would be advantageous in the election for the House of Councilors in Japan. Abe can hardly avoid the criticism that he would use the issue politically in order to transform Japan into a nation that can carry out war through an amendment to the Peace Constitution of Japan. Abe has been using the comfort women issue since he came to power in December 2012 to widen his political base by appealing to ultra-right groups in Japan. In 2014, Abe stimulated the anti-Korea sentiments in Japan by denying the Kono Statement in 1993, which acknowledged the mobilization of comfort women by force by the Japanese government.
It goes without saying that Japan with an original sin should reflect on itself. Japan must stop immediately the trivial economic retaliations against South Korea. However, the Korean government should be reflective, too. This firestorm was triggered by the annulment of the comfort women agreement and the ruling in favor of compensations for victims of forced labor. This is because it is the Korean side that provoked and expanded the conflict by dismantling the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation set up through an agreement between the two governments in 2015 and with a ruling in favor of compensations for victims of forced labor by the Korean Supreme Court that made a big thing of the Korea-Japan claim treaty.
President Moon and Prime Minister Abe should not use this historic tragedy for their political interests. In particular, they should not make a mistake of fueling hostile national sentiments hard to eliminate between the two countries by promoting anti-Korean and anti-Japanese sentiments. If the conflict between Seoul and Tokyo ignited for political reasons shifts to a prolonged Korea-Japan trade war, both countries will suffer serious damage as well as the global value chain will be hurt seriously.
The Moon Jae-in government has created the new political issue without clear solutions and specific strategies for this historic issue. Prime Minister Abe is expanding the possibility of harming both Korean and Japanese companies and people by reacting to the political problem with economic retaliations. Before the situation worsens, Moon and Abe should seek a win-win solution to this issue from a future-oriented point of view by meeting halfway.