The Korea-Japan trade war that began with Tokyo's announcement of restrictions on exports to Seoul on July 1, is showing signs of getting prolonged. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Friday summoned Korean Ambassador to Japan Nam Gwan-pyo to strongly protest Korea's rejection of its call for an arbitration panel on wartime forced labor. Kono later said in a statement that Japan "will devise necessary measures" against Seoul. Although he did not elaborate on what the "necessary measures" would be, observers view them as further retaliatory steps including filing a complaint with the International Court of Justice and strengthened export restrictions.
Korea countered Japan's accusation, saying that Seoul does not agree to Tokyo’s "unilateral and arbitrary" argument and doesn’t need to be bound by related demands. The Korean government has rejected Japan's demands on the grounds that it cannot intervene in the Korean judiciary's rulings and that it is inappropriate to seek arbitration when the two neighbors are still in discussions. Instead, Seoul has proposed that Korean and Japanese companies raise funds to pay compensations to the forced labor victims and says it is "open to putting all suggestions on the table."
Japan's prolonged export curbs are also under international criticisms. British business weekly The Economist's Internet edition criticized Japan for being "economically shortsighted" in a broader geopolitical context. "The two countries… need to step back from the brink," it said. "It is not too late to defuse the situation. The commercial damage has been limited so far."
After Japan's parliamentary elections are over on Sunday, the two countries will face each other at the World Trade Organization next week. The Japanese government seems to be put the situation under control. Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched a public relations campaign, holding briefings for overseas media. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry said it plans to allow exports to Korea if there is no concern over their military use, according to Japan's NHK television. While making thorough preparations, Seoul should also seek quiet diplomacy with Tokyo.
What is more worrisome is that the Seoul-Tokyo relationship, which is said to be at its worst since 1965, is going beyond conflicts between the two governments and aggravating public sentiment against the people of each other. Some politicians in the two countries are showing signs of taking advantage of the situation to create a hardline atmosphere. We should caution against labeling sound criticisms as "betrayal" or becoming too emotional. The leaderships of both countries should continue quiet diplomacy while putting the situation under control to prevent further aggravation.