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Abe’s real game

July 31,2019
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Lee Ha-kyung
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic retaliations are nasty. Because he was angry about the wartime forced labor issue, he put knives into the hearts of Samsung and SK Hynix. Although he said the retaliations were for national security reasons, it is not convincing. Japan has started a countdown to remove Korea from a so-called “white list” of countries eligible for preferential treatment in trade. Wise Japanese leaders issued statements warning that the plan is a “hostile act because it can hit Korea critically.”

Japan’s export restrictions against Korea are a classic example of words and actions that don’t match. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and blocked Ukrainian products from being exported to other countries through the territory, claiming that the exports could include military goods. Ukraine took the case to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2016. On April 5, 2019, the WTO’s dispute settlement panel ruled in favor of Russia based on Article 21 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which allows security exceptions for trade-restricting measures in the traffic in arms, ammunition and implements of war and other goods and materials that could supply a military establishment.

In an opinion submitted to the WTO on Nov. 8, 2017, Japan said GATT’s Article 21 is a special clause intended to protect important national interests and the discretion of a country that invokes it must be recognized. At the same time, Japan said the discretion should “not be unbounded and must be exercised with extreme caution.”

Professor Lee Jae-min of Seoul National University Graduate School of Law, an expert in trade disputes, said Japan seems to have failed to check and clarify the grounds for its security exemptions, so the statement will eventually hinder its case in any future WTO ruling.

After the United States stopped oil exports in 1941, Japan carried out the Pearl Harbor attack and kicked off the Pacific War. It knows the danger of export controls. And yet, it carried out the reckless measure against Korea, shaking the foundations of not only Korea-Japan relations but also security cooperation in Northeast Asia. It is not a coincidence that North Korea, China and Russia have recently conducted a series of provocations.

Although U.S. and European media and think tanks are criticizing Japan, Abe does not care. He must have something he believes in. “National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi and Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga both think that export restrictions against Korea are too much,” according to a source who is close to a key aide to Abe. “But no one can say that to Abe. Abe wants to push forward the constitutional amendment in time with the Tokyo Olympics next year to realize the dream that Japan will become a normal country that can start a war.

“Abe wants to make a strong Japan by taking the opportunity to hit Korea because the Japanese people’s sentiment toward Korea is so bad,” he continued. “The United States also sees Korea as a potential competitor in the fourth industrial revolution and in 5G technology, so it won’t likely stop Abe.”

Now the picture is clearer. The Japanese people’s anti-Korea sentiment and the tacit approval of the United States are Abe’s weapons. Actually, the United States is ignoring Korea’s desperate requests for help to mediate the trade row. It is unrealistic to expect the United States to help Korea.

So, the only option is calming the Japanese people’s anti-Korea sentiments. Only then can we stop Abe’s reckless moves. We would have higher ground in the WTO, but a ruling takes years, and a tsunami of economic retaliations is already here. The Japanese people said they are angry because Korea did not keep its promise. They said Korea scrapped the comfort women settlement agreement unilaterally and is now harassing Japanese companies on the issue of forced labor, which was settled with the 1965 Basic Treaty to address all claims. They suspect that Korea is trying to scrap the 1965 agreement altogether. It is not true, but that is the Japanese people’s idea.

We need to ease the anger of the Japanese public. We must refrain from provocative actions and words. The more we provoke Japan, the more we will fuel anti-Korea sentiment and help Abe. We need to calm our own anger and search for a diplomatic resolution. We should find a realistic solution while respecting the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Japanese companies are responsible for compensating the victims and at the same time maintaining the compromise of the 1965 agreement, which left the illegality of colonial rule intentionally ambiguous. It is fortunate that Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon recently said, “We should not worsen the situation any further and find a resolution through diplomacy.”

Kim Gu, a legendary independence fighter during the colonial period, said after liberation that Korea needs pro-Japanese people who are helpful to the country. “If we have none, we should create them,” Kim was quoted by Choi Seo-myeon, an authority in modern history, in an interview with Shindonga.

In a statement to the nation on the outcome of the normalization talks with Japan in 1965, former President Park Chung Hee said Japan was a “mortal enemy” but “we need to hold its hands for today and future.” Korea was able to become a strong economy from a poor country thanks to such flexibility.

Dividing the people between anti-Japan or pro-Japan is anachronistic. We can criticize Japan’s reckless actions, but we must maintain an open-minded attitude to befriend a good Japan. That is the sure way to protect our national interests.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 29, Page 31