Japan decided on Friday to revise the Export Trade Control Order to remove South Korea from the “white list” of countries granted preferential treatment in trade. If the new measures take effect on Aug. 28 as expected, it will no longer affect just three items related to semiconductors but all areas except food and wood. A total of 1,194 strategic items will be subject to strengthened regulations, and 159 items will be hit hard. Following Japan’s decision, South Korean President Moon Jae-in convened an emergency Cabinet meeting and said that his administration will resolutely take corresponding measures to Japan’s unjust economic retaliatory measures. The bilateral relationship between the two countries has deteriorated more than ever since the establishment in 1965.
Japan’s claim that South Korea was excluded from the “white list” because the nation was loose in its management of export controls is completely ungrounded. Given that South Korea has been applying more strict regulations on export controls than Japan, Japan has obviously brought the unrelated issue of security to try to justify its recent moves. This is why the Abe administration should immediately withdraw its decision to eliminate South Korea from the list of trusted trading partners.
The South Korean government should make strategic moves in response to Japan’s retaliatory measures. A two-tracked strategy is needed. While resolutely criticizing Tokyo for its unjustifiable decision, Seoul should not stop making diplomatic efforts by mobilizing multiple channels. Three weeks are given before an amended ordinance takes effect. Since the two countries may be able to extend the time by for example, holding a last-minute summit between the leaders, South Korea should avoid taking any extreme corresponding measures but carefully manage the situation. Still, President Moon’s speech marking the National Liberation Day on Aug. 15 and Japan’s Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony in October may throw curve balls at the developments.
This is the time that we cannot afford to engage in meaningless internal fights and create division. While it is important to voice a shared view toward Japan, the South Korean presidential office and the government also need to heed possible alternatives proposed by the opposition bloc. In addition, since the top court ordered Japanese companies to compensate South Korean victims of forced labor in October last year, the government has insisted that it cannot be involved in the judiciary’s rulings, but it needs to review whether there is another approach it can take while upholding the principle.
Also, the South Korean ruling party should be cautious in placing its hands on the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) card. Amid rocking security landscapes with North Korea’s string of missile tests and China and Russia’s alleged airspace violation, the GSOMIA is what connects the United States and South Korea and Japan, its two biggest allies in Asia in security cooperation. Enhanced trilateral cooperation in security is stressed more by Washington than Tokyo. Seoul should think about whether playing a security card to counter Japan’s unfair economic retaliation, triggered by an unrelated diplomatic issue, is in the interest of the country in the long term.