Commentary / Japan

Tragedies over the trade spat with Seoul

by Kuni Miyake

Two junior directors from the South Korean trade ministry and their Japanese counterparts held an unusual six-hour meeting in Tokyo last Friday. It was a nightmare scenario for those who recall the security coordination between the United States, Japan and South Korea during the Cold War. Back then, the de facto tripartite hub-and-spoke alliance was solid and functional. Those four officials in charge of security-related export control may not be senior enough to remember the good old days of the 1980s.

For Tokyo, the measures announced July 1 were a well-crafted, World Trade Organization-consistent “silver bullet” that would hopefully put an end to the ongoing disputes with South Korea.

Optimistic Japanese officials, therefore, might have been startled to see a New York Times article on July 15 that said “Mr. Abe became the latest world leader to strike a blow against free trade, when he moved to limit South Korea’s access to Japanese chemicals … citing vague and unspecified concerns about national security.”

The article went on to say that “the Japanese exporters will need to apply for licenses for each one, a process that can take up to 90 days. Additionally, Japan has indicated it may remove South Korea from a list of countries that are exempt from licensing requirements for exports with possible military applications.”

While officials in Tokyo might have thought it was a great idea at first, they did not anticipate that the rest of the world would misunderstand and consider the measures another example of a nation using trade measures to coerce other nations over unrelated issues, which U.S. President Donald Trump always likes to resort to.

Obviously, South Korean officials see this in a different way. They suspect Japan is trying to retaliate over bilateral political disputes that Tokyo says were settled “completely and finally” when the two countries normalized relations in 1965. While many pundits tend to link Tokyo’s trade measures with political issues, the following is my take on this tragedy.

Japan didn’t use national security to limit trade.

The July 1 measures do not restrict free trade.  Tokyo still treats South Korea as one of many ordinary nations equally subject to a regular process of obtaining an export license for each case, which can take up to 90 days but in most cases is much shorter. South Korea is not discriminated against, but it just loses some privileges.

Japan didn’t cite vague national security concerns.

Make no mistake. Some South Korean companies have inadequately managed the specialized chemicals under the category of “controlled items” with potential military applications. Tokyo did not disclose details only because they are usually highly classified. No country discusses intelligence in public, either.

Japan made a mistake in making the measures seen as retaliation.

Some Japanese officials may have misled and confused journalists by inadvertently referring to the ongoing disputes between Japan and South Korea. In Japan, this issue has been mainly handled by trade ministry officials, whose lack of diplomatic knowledge and skills might have further aggravated the confusion.

Economic pressure doesn’t work and is even counterproductive.

It would be a tragedy if anyone in the Japanese government was too naive to believe that the July 1 measures would eventually force the South Korean leaders to change their policy toward Japan. As in the case of U.S.-Iran disputes, U.S. economic sanctions would never successfully persuade the mullahs in Qom.

The U.S. won’t mediate.

If you have two best friends who fight against each other, which one of the two will you help? Of course, the answer is none. For the U.S., the most urgent concern is Iran and by no means the Korean Peninsula. I would be surprised if the Trump administration ran a risk of losing one of Washington’s most important allies or both.

The markets will have the final say.

By the same token, neither South Korean President Moon Jae-in nor Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can run the risk of making concessions and giving in to the other. There is a peculiar state of political cohabitation between the two leaders. In this environment, it may have to be the business community in South Korea or Japan, or both, that puts an end to this game of chicken.

South Korea keeps moving the goal posts.

How long should Japan wait for a final rapprochement with Koreans? As I wrote as far back as 2013, fear has been growing that South Korean leaders, by moving the goal posts, are just fanning anti-Japanese sentiment for domestic political purposes, and that Japan can never alter those Korean attitudes.

In October 1998, then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung visited Japan. He stressed the need for forgiveness and reconciliation in the bilateral relationship with Japan. In an address to the Diet, Kim even stated that the bilateral joint declaration issued during that visit would put an end to the history disputes.

His remarks deeply moved many Japanese, including myself. We truly believed that a new era had come to Japan-South Korea relations and hoped that the previous 50-some years of sincere efforts would finally bring about mutual benefits. Yet, 21 years later, Tokyo now feels that something is changing in South Korea.

What has changed is South Korea’s foreign policy. No matter how unrealistic it may sound, Koreans finally see an opportunity to become the owner of their history. North Koreans call it juche ideology and the current South Korean president seems to believe in the idea.

Is Seoul worse than Pyongyang? Hardly. Think strategically. South Korea shares democracy, freedom, human rights and other universal values that Japan has upheld for the past 70 years. It is to the interest of Japan to see a free, stable, independent and democratic (even if not pro-Japan) Korean state in East Asia.

If South Korea does not come back to the tripartite security alliance, does spiting South Koreans with humiliating but still WTO-consistent trade measures make sense at all? I strongly doubt that. What Japan needs is a strategy, not a fruitless and unpleasant pastime. The Chinese and Russians are laughing at us, aren’t they?

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.