Emotional feud of action and counteraction between South Korea and Japan continues to intensify over the past week after the Japanese government announced tightened controls on exports of semiconductor materials to South Korea. “We cannot give favorable treatment to countries that fail to keep promises,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, while not hesitating to make such insulting remarks to South Korea. The Seoul government, which maintained strategic silence for the first several days, is now labeling Tokyo’s action as “retaliatory” and shifted its stance towards direct counteraction. Tokyo is preparing additional retaliatory measures, and is mentioning the possibility of financial retaliation that entails mobilizing 18 trillion won (15.3 billion U.S. dollars) from Japanese banks lent to South Korea. Anti-Japanese campaigns including boycott of Japanese products and travel to Japan are spreading among the South Korean public.
In times of dispute like this, rational people should raise their voices in both countries all the more. As politics and diplomacy are weighing excessive burden on economy, entrepreneurs are scrambling to find a solution. Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong and Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin are visiting Japan as part of their efforts to resolve the situation. In fact, Tokyo’s actions are not sanctions and therefore there is a significant chance that flexibility can be exercised. If the worst emotional feud is eased a bit, the Japanese government could choose to lift the restrictions in the course of export licensing, which will instantly solve the tension. Ways to address the difficult issues that have caused Seoul-Tokyo relations to deteriorate, including South Korea court’s ruling that ordered Japanese firms to pay damage to South Korean slave laborers, could be found if intellectuals of the two countries pool their wisdom. The political circles of the two neighbors should also restore parliamentarian diplomacy including the South Korea-Japan Parliamentarians’ Union, while various sectors including the business community, academia and media should start dialogue and exchange between their respective partners.
Indeed, a growing number of critics within Japan say that Tokyo’s latest move is “ill-advised” and “detrimental to Japan’s interests” as well. For example, a global supply chain has been operating through international division of labor in the semiconductor sector, and if this chain gets severed, not only South Korea and Japan but many other countries that collectively form the network will end up incurring damage. In this light, if the Abe administration continuously insists on a hard-line stance, it will leave scar that would be hard to heal in Seoul-Tokyo relations and order and stability in Northeast Asia in the long-term, and could cause self-inflicting harm to the Japanese economy.
The need for a bilateral summit is being mentioned to resolve a slew of complex issues, but the two sides should set strategic direction first before pushing to develop corresponding roadmaps. Both nations should regain cool-mindedness, and start behind-the-scene diplomacy aimed at finding ultimate solutions. If rational people in both South Korea and Japan, which have been neighbors throughout their histories of 5,000 years, raise voices, they will be able to secure and display capabilities to solve the problem reasonably.