President Moon Jae In clearly adopted a defiant stance in response to the Japanese government’s decision to delist South Korea from the list of Group A countries (“white countries”) subject to minimum controls regarding the export of sensitive materials and goods.
Upon Japan’s decision, Moon declared: “Japan, the perpetrator in this case, rather than showing remorse, is running around raising a ruckus. We won’t stand idly by and let them get away with it.”
Here Moon was up to his old tricks, not giving any specific reasons for why the revision to Japanese regulations were wrong. His statement was nothing more than an emotional appeal, with Japan ipso facto the “perpetrator.”
President Moon evoked the memory of Korean national hero Admiral Yi Sun-sin, whose naval forces wreaked havoc among Japanese samurai invaders sent by warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi during the late 16th century. He wished to create the impression that he too would resist to the end against Japanese intimidation.
The anti-Japan refrain was quickly picked up by members of the power establishment, including public servants and leaders of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.
Influential Seoul University law professor and former Senior Presidential Secretary for Civil Affairs Cho Kuk (Cho resigned from the latter position on July 26) has been posting anti-Japanese diatribes on his Facebook page nearly daily.
Cho has been trying to get people take sides in the controversy. On August 18, he posted, for example: “In this situation, it is not a question of progressive or conservative, leftwing or rightwing, rather it is whether you are a patriot or serving the interests of the enemy.”
He also wrote: “South Koreans who reject, criticize, distort or cast aspersions upon the decision of the Supreme Court [ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to Korean former laborers] should naturally be considered ‘pro-Japanese elements.’”
Moon Administration Ignoring the Facts
South Korea’s exclusion from the “white list” does not mean that Japanese companies can no longer sell items in question to that country.
The South Korean government seemed incapable of rationally addressing Japan’s concerns about several previous cases in which sensitive items exported to South Korea ended up in unknown destinations. Therefore, Japan is simply requiring Korean companies buying sensitive materials to “declare” where the materials will end up and for what purpose they will be used.
These are the exact same regulations that are applied to similar exports to China, Taiwan, and the ASEAN countries. Be that as it may, the Moon administration has demanded that it should continue to receive special treatment.
President Moon asserted that the new measures “are designed to cripple the growth of the South Korean economy.” He also seemed to be threatening Japan when he makes statements like: “Japan’s intent in that regard (interfering with South Korea’s growth) will never succeed. Let me warn Japan that in the end damage to the Japanese economy is sure to be greater.”
Proposals for Building Normal Relations
As things stand, if it is to build normal relations with South Korea, Japan needs to start by taking the following three steps:
Japan should not submit to dredging up the past. By that I do not mean that the past should be forgotten. My point is that the reason Seoul-Tokyo relations have been on the rocks since President Moon took office is that Japan has become ensnared in Moon’s gambit to make everything about the “past.” So, in cases where past history should have been considered settled, Japan now finds itself wallowing in a historical swamp.
Last February President Moon stated, “Wiping away every tinge of pro-Japanism is the first step on the road to creating a just country.” This statement alone is ample evidence of Moon’s distorted perception of history.
Moon is, in effect, saying that having friendly feelings towards Japan is inherently “unjust.” Does that mean that the postwar friendship between South Korea and Japan based on shared democratic values has meant absolutely nothing?
We have to conclude that Moon views prewar Japan and postwar Japan as one and the same, or he has jumbled them up in his mind. Therefore, he seems determined to purge anything that to him might resemble a “pro-Japan” stance.
As a result, he appears prepared to make pariahs of his many countrymen who have not sought to dwell on the past but instead want to deal with Japan as it is today, by labeling them “pro-Japanese.”
Moon has in this fashion up until now done all he can to use “past history” as a means to whip up anti-Japan sentiment among the Korean people by not just legitimizing it, but by equating “anti-Japan” with “justice.”
Isn’t it time for Moon and company to get over their practice of using Japan bashing for political purposes?
Quarrels are inevitable. Up until now, when Seoul has gotten into any kind of dispute with Tokyo, it has not argued in terms of the actual relationship, but instead has sought to play the history issue card and take on the role of “victim” to appeal to international public opinion.
That holds true for the current export regulations controversy, as it first tried to enlist Washington as a mediator. Failing at that, Seoul then appealed to the World Trade Organization, even though that organization had nothing to do with the matter at hand. Next, it complained about Japan’s “unreasonableness” at a working level meeting of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
In other words, Seoul is doing everything it can to enlist international support wherever it can find it. That being so, as things now stand, the Moon government shows no inclination whatsoever to deal with actual bilateral relations and address Japan’s concerns.
Still, Japan should not give up in its efforts to get the relationship back on a realistic track.
Seoul does not merit any kind of special treatment. After the war, there was a period when, out of a sense of atonement for its past actions, Japan viewed South Korea in an especially favorable way.
Many Japanese business leaders tried to help South Korea’s economy develop. If it had not been for such cooperation from Japan for South Korea’s steel, motor vehicle, electronics, and semiconductor sectors, the miraculous development of the South Korean economy might never have been possible. Japan should not be shy in pointing this out when arguing its position.
Unfortunately, South Korea can no longer be a “special country” for Japan. One reason for that is because the South Korean economy has grown to be as big as it is today.
It can’t be denied that the special treatment shown towards Seoul in the past has created a structure of dependence in bilateral relations.
It is only if Japan-South Korea ties become a truly mature, normal bilateral relationship that we can eliminate this structure of dependence. Isn’t the removal of Seoul from the list of “white countries” the first step towards achieving that goal?
(This article was first published in the August 6, 2019, “Seiron” column of The Sankei Shimbun. Click here to read the Seiron opinion article in its original Japanese.)
Author: Sotetsu LEE, Professor, Ryukoku University