Japan’s action slapping export restrictions on trade with South Korea earlier in July brought to mind images of Abashiri Bangaichi (The Walls of Abashiri Prison). It is a Japanese film series starring movie legend Ken Takakura, who played a man who demonstrates patience and tolerance, and then more patience over a long time, before finally launching into a counterattack.
On July 1, the Japanese government took South Korea off the list of countries friendly to Japan and entitled to exemptions from complicated export procedures on the part of Japanese exporters.
Effective July 4, Japanese exports to South Korea of three high-tech items have been subject to tangled, time-consuming permission procedures. These are fluorinated polyimide, the material used in organic electroluminescent (EL) displays for such products as televisions and smartphones, and resists and etching gases (high-purity hydrogen fluoride) that are essential in the manufacturing of semiconductors.
Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry cited the export curbs as a precaution taken because of the “lack of dialogue over a fixed period between Japan and South Korea on trade controls involving national security.”
However, the truth is that Japan decided on the action as a de facto countermeasure due to the perception that no progress is in sight on resolving the issue of Japan’s so-called wartime era “forced recruitment” of laborers from the Korean Peninsula, as reported in the July 1 morning edition of The Sankei Shimbun. (RELATED ARTICLE: Koreans in Wartime Japan: Don’t Confuse Illegal Migrants with Recruited Workers)
Japan’s global market share of the three products is particularly high. Japanese production accounts for about 90% of the world share of fluorinated polyimide and resists, and about 70% of etching gas.
It is rumored that the toughening of export regulations against South Korea could deal a serious blow to production activities of leading South Korean manufacturers, such as Samsung Electronics Co. a semiconductor giant, and LG Electronics, which is a leader in the manufacturing of flat-screen, high-definition TVs. South Korea, for its part, is reported to be considering its own countermeasures.
Some analysts might well call the situation the breakout of a Japan-South Korea high-tech trade war, though it is small in scale compared to the trade war between the United States and China. The export restrictions have drawn fire from South Korea, which called Japan’s move an “act of trampling international free trade rules.”
The Nihon Keizai Shimbun's July 2 editorial raised concerns that the export-curbing step could harm the reputation from abroad of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration, which has been seen as a standard-bearer of free trade.
A Predominantly Political Issue for Seoul
The reality of international trade today is that it is not black or white. In its trade with Japan, South Korea has long placed restrictions on the import of home appliances, automobiles, and semiconductors with the aim of nourishing its own domestic industries. At the same time, Seoul is on record as depending on imports from Japan for parts and materials that cannot be procured through domestic technologies.
Japan, in light of the special relationship with South Korea, effectively acquiesced in this bilateral trade relationship, which has been unilaterally advantageous to Seoul. It was a politically-motivated calculation.
Over the years, South Korean industries have gradually caught up with Japanese technologically. In particular, South Korea’s world market shares have surpassed Japan in sectors such as TVs and automobiles, as well as semiconductors and smartphones. The quality of a limited number of South Korean parts and materials, however, still lags behind Japan.
Faced with South Korea’s negligence in honoring bilateral treaty commitments on the comfort women issue as well as the wartime recruitment of South Korean laborers, Japan had no other choice but to act. In doing so, it struck at one of the few weak points in Seoul’s trade relations with Tokyo.
The graph shows year-on-year changes in South Korea’s dependence on Japanese imports, broken down by all imports and imports of semiconductors from Japan. It demonstrates that South Korea’s trade dependence on Japan has dropped sharply over the past 20 years, with both overall imports and semiconductors from Japan now reduced to less than 10% of South Korea’s imports from all sources.
This means South Korea does not need to rely on imports from Japan as it did before, including in the semiconductor sector. In the process, successive South Korean administrations have ceased worrying about aggravating relations with Japan by recirculating history issues. (RELATED ARTICLE: A Rebuttal to President Moon’s Claims on Wartime Korean Workers in Japan)
At the same time, South Korea has been deepening its reliance on China in trade. The result is that Seoul has made a point of abasing itself when it comes to ties to Beijing.
On the other hand, in the eyes of South Korea, relations with Japan have become nothing more than a tool for political maneuvering.
The Japanese side has just begun to fight back.
(Click here to read the opinion article in its original Japanese.)
Author: Hideo Tamura, Special Senior Writer, The Sankei Shimbun