The Argument is a feature dedicated to promoting dialogue and deeper understanding on contentious issues by introducing various viewpoints.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, whose distorted perception of Japan has led to the current deterioration in bilateral ties, has stepped up his administration’s harsh anti-Japanese policy since Tokyo decided to implement stricter export controls on its neighbor.
Moon falsely believes that Japan is an “assailant” that shows no remorse for its colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. From his perspective, Moon cannot let this assailant again hurt Korea — this time economically.
Moon’s biased, unfounded beliefs are directed at the very foundation of modern Japan-South Korea relations. After the end of Tokyo’s 1910-1945 colonial rule and through a series of twists and turns, the two countries eventually inked a 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic relations and agreeing to the final settlement of problems in regard to property, claims and economic cooperation.
Though a trained lawyer, Moon denies the legitimacy of the treaty and agreement not from a legal standpoint, but from a political one. Seen through the eyes of leftist politicians like him, it’s a treaty tainted by the compromises of pro-Japanese military strongman Park Chung-hee.
Moon has denied all things related to Park, while also targeting the country’s first president, anti-communist Syngman Rhee, and other conservative governments that were not democratically elected, labeling them long-standing evils.
Why? Because Moon thinks that unlike North Korea — which fought against the Japanese — the conservatives in the South after the war developed the country’s wealth and power through its alliance with pro-Japanese collaborators — rendering it illegitimate.
From Moon’s perspective, only leftist governments led by Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun were legitimate. Moon wants to rewrite the treaty signed by conservative forces, and ultimately blow up Japan-South Korea relations, whose foundation rests on the pact.
But even the president cannot invalidate a treaty. As a lawyer, Moon knows this, so he is instead employing a strategy to besmirch the treaty by reviving the wartime labor and “comfort women” issues.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono had every right to criticize South Korea by saying that Seoul’s decision to do so would “upend the postwar world order.”
And when considering the chronology of events, it’s clear that South Korea has been the cause of the current state of conflict.
Last fall, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that some Japanese companies must pay damages for Korean wartime laborers. Japan, however, argues that compensation for the workers was settled by the 1965 agreement, which states that there are three steps for solving a conflict when one erupts.
This January, in accordance with the agreement, Japan requested diplomatic arbitration between the two. After South Korea failed to respond to this request, Japan asked to set up an arbitration committee in May. After South Korea again ignored the request, Japan called for third-party arbitration in June. But once again, Seoul did not respond by the July 18 deadline.
In short, Japan has attempted to solve the conflict based on the rule of law, while South Korea has rejected each attempt to do so.
Meanwhile, Japan took gradual steps in response: stricter export controls of semiconductor materials on July 1 and an Aug. 2 decision to scrub South Korea from its so-called whitelist of countries entitled to receive preferential treatment in trade.
It’s understandable that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s distrust and anger toward Moon have accumulated. But it’s wrong to regard the stricter export controls as an act of “retaliation against Moon.”
When Japanese companies export dual-use supplies that can be diverted for military use, the Japanese authorities have a simplified export procedure to expedite shipping to reliable, whitelist countries.
On the other hand, materials should not be sent to untrustworthy countries if they can be diverted for the development of weapons of mass destruction. As part of the new rules, exporters are requested to confirm their exports’ final destinations and usage.
But this is a security measure, not a retaliatory move.
It should be noted that after Japan announced the stricter export controls on July 1, Moon floated the idea of countermeasures at the Blue House just a week later.
Then there was a week of silence.
Moon was likely considering the possibility of a more moderate solution via diplomatic channels. But, looking ahead to April’s election for the South’s national assembly, that path was ruled out, and instead he sought to boost his approval ratings in the poll’s run-up.
This was proven to be the case with the revelation of a report issued on July 30 by the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s Institute for Democracy think tank. The report, entitled “Public Opinion on Korea-Japan Conflict,” was secretly distributed among members of Moon’s ruling party, according to reports in South Korean media. The report concluded that, through public opinion analysis, anti-Japan attitudes would lead to an election win.
Since then, the ruling party has doubled down on its anti-Japanese stance, with Moon accusing Japan of being impudent immediately after the South’s removal from the whitelist. Senior South Korean officials have posted severe criticism of Japan on Facebook, while ruling party lawmakers exploited the Fukushima nuclear disaster, making claims that they had gotten “nosebleeds when going to Japan” and calling for the “boycotting of the Tokyo Olympics.”
Moon’s distorted ideology and his goal of victory in the April election have combined to intensify the anti-Japan policy emanating from Seoul.
Contrary to this, based on my experience during frequent visits to the country, public opinion in South Korea of Moon’s anti-Japan push has remained relatively subdued.
Citizens’ boycotts against Japanese products have also been overblown in the media. Considering the bilateral trade structure, South Korean companies would suffer more from a prolonged bilateral spat than Japanese firms.
It must also be said that Moon emerged victorious in the 2017 presidential election in part because of the scandal surrounding ousted President Park Geun-hye and the ensuing division of conservative forces. In essence, even though Moon won, his victory does not mean he has a mandate to pursue an anti-Japanese agenda.
The anti-Japan policy is bad for South Korea, but Moon simply cannot get along with Tokyo.
Thus, now is the time for Japan to cut off bad practices in relations with South Korea. In the postwar era, Tokyo has never strongly asserted its will against Seoul, which has raised numerous historical issues. Instead, it has pampered South Korea, giving it “special treatment,” including putting the country — the only one in Asia — on its whitelist in 2003.
Japan should take this opportunity to begin treating South Korea as an “ordinary country,” rather than a special one.
Ri Sotetsu is a professor at Ryukoku University specializing in sociology.