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Talk about wishful thinking

July 20,2019
이미지뷰
Yeh Young-june
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Japan’s curb on exports to Korea reminds me of a similar situation when China took economic retaliation on Korea for deploying a U.S. antimissile system in 2016. At the time, the Park Geun-hye administration did not think Beijing would take retaliatory action despite repeated warnings that installing a radar system could put the Chinese mainland under U.S. surveillance.

The Park administration claimed the situation was different from 2000, when Beijing retaliated with a sweeping ban on Korean imports in response to Seoul’s tariffs on Chinese garlic to protect Korean farmers from an oversupply of cheap Chinese produce. Since joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), China had become a responsible trade partner, it said. A diplomat at the Korean Embassy in Beijing even took time to brief Korean correspondents in China on why it would not respond in such petty way. But everyone knows what happened next. Beijing showed its can bully a neighbor in a colossal way.

Seoul has been equally oblivious in its spat with Tokyo this time around.

The rightist government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned of strong reactions to Korean court rulings on wartime forced labor. Japanese media outlets have been reporting from the beginning of the year that Tokyo had drawn up a list of more than 100 retaliatory actions it could take on Seoul. Many experts warned it was not a bluff. But Seoul refused to pay heed, arguing that Tokyo would hardly take such extreme actions.

A senior presidential aide in May disagreed with the observation that the Korea-Japan relationship was at its worst. I want to ask him now if he still think so. President Moon Jae-in has been chairing emergency meetings with business and political leaders in the face of a “grave challenge” to the nation. Months have passed since the Korean Supreme Court ruled in favor of ordering Japanese companies to pay damages to Korean workers forced to work during World War II, and the country’s most valuable companies are on the line. Our entire economy is on the line — perhaps our future.

Denial can be as dangerous as wishful thinking. But sadly, the leadership has not fully woken up from its denials and delusions. Policymakers in the Blue House and government tend to regard Tokyo’s action as merely part of the Abe administration’s campaign strategy ahead of an Upper House election on Sunday. Officials are sticking to the theory that Abe has ordered an unprecedented trade embargo against Korea to muster support from conservatives ahead of the election. The comfort in that line of thinking comes from the idea that Japan’s hard-line actions will ease once the election is over.

Talk about wishful thinking. Although Tokyo’s restrictions on three key materials used in the production of semiconductors and displays in Korea were timed with the Upper House election, none of the candidates sought to capitalize on anti-Korea sentiment in their stump speeches or on television: The issue has not become a campaign theme. Polls show that the conservative camp led by Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is set for a solid victory in the Upper House, and easing the protectionist trade policy won’t likely happen after the election is over. The election is not a factor, according to bureaucrats, journalists and experts in Japan. What matters is the Korean government’s attitude and actions.

A Japanese official said the Korean government must address the issue of compensating Korean individuals forced to work during the war as the 1965 basic treaty does not cover individual claims. Tokyo demands rightful actions from Seoul since the Korean government signed the agreement for normalizing diplomatic relations between the two in 1965. A statement on the issue from Seoul — which has refused to get involved in the judiciary’s decision based on the principle of separation of powers — would be a starting point to tangle the conundrum. The government must demonstrate the will to directly solve the problem to set the table for negotiation. Finding exactly what it can do without disrespecting the plaintiffs and Supreme Court rulings is the next step. Non-interference on grounds of the separation of powers is more or less a message to Tokyo that Seoul cannot do anything about the judiciary decisions.

Early next month, Tokyo will make a final decision on whether to remove Korea entirely from its list of countries receiving preferential treatment for trade. Not much time is left. The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) came under Japanese invasion for seven years because the royal court believed a report from one of two envoys sent to Japan before the breakout of the Imjin War (1592-1598). Although other aides warned Japan was preparing an attack, the court chose to believe what it wished to believe. As a result, the country had to rely on Adm. Yi Sun-shin’s miraculous defense at sea to safeguard the nation. Sadly, we do not have a strong war commander like Admiral Yi today.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 18, Page 28