Japan’s export curbs fuel political feud in S. Korea

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South Korean protesters stage a rally demanding full compensation and an apology for wartime sex slaves from Japanese government in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, July 10, 2019. South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday criticized comments by Japanese officials who questioned the credibility of Seoul's sanctions against North Korea while justifying Tokyo's stricter controls on high-tech exports to South Korea. The signs read: "Japan should stop economic retaliation." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN) — Seoul is in political turmoil as politicians tackle the best course of action to pursue with Japan. Japan’s decision to impose export restrictions on key hi-tech semiconductor and electronics materials to South Korea is having a political fallout here.

President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday reiterated Seoul’s position that the measures are politically motivated, while criticizing Japan’s attempt to justify its actions by linking them to sanctions on North Korea.

“The Japanese government is taking measures that impact our economy for political goals, and making comments that link (the measures) to North Korean sanctions without any basis. It is not beneficial for bilateral relations and security cooperation,” Moon said at a meeting with leaders of South Korea’s largest corporations on Wednesday.

Seoul has raised the issue of Japan removing South Korea from the list of countries that receive preferential treatment in importing fluorine polyimide, resist and etching gas.

The move is being seen as a retaliation for the Supreme Court’s ruling ordering Japanese firms to compensate Koreans who were forced to work for Japanese companies during Japan’s occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century.

Faced with criticism even from within Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has since linked the export curbs to sanctions on North Korea, suggesting that South Korea may be failing to keep strategic materials from being routed to the North.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Moon repeated that the government is seeking diplomatic solutions, and urged the Japanese government to respond appropriately.

While the South Korean government refutes Japan’s claims that the materials could end up in North Korea, Japanese government officials continued to raise the issue.

According to Japanese media reports citing unnamed government sources, Tokyo has detected a number of cases that were “inappropriate for national security” with regard to etching gas exports to South Korea.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami on Wednesday claimed that the measures are within boundaries recognized by the World Trade Organization, and reiterated the claims that there are cases that cast doubts on South Korea’s management of sensitive materials.

Nogami was responding to a question about a list of strategic materials illegally being exported out of South Korea released by Rep. Cho Won-jin of the minor opposition Our Republican Party in May. According to the data, the number of illegal exports of such materials between 2015 and March this year came to 156.

Related news reports claim that etching gas — hydrofluoric acid — could be used for producing chemical weapons, including Sarin gas.

North Korea is one of the few countries that has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, and is thought to be capable of mass-producing Sarin gas and other nerve agents.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party, which had until now focused on Moon administration’s Japan policies, is now linking the issue to South Korea-US relations.

It has long claimed that the South Korea-US alliance has been strained beyond repair under the Moon administration, saying that due to the president’s focus on mending ties with North Korea, the government has disregarded bilateral relations. South Korea’s policies on the peninsula have fallen out of step with that of the US, it said.

“I want to ask why President Moon cannot ask President Trump to persuade Japan (to mend its ways),” Liberty Korea Party Floor Leader Rep. Na Kyung-won said Wednesday.

She went on to say that the US by not intervening in the issue “again revealed the current state of South Korea-US relations.”

“In reality, the stance the US is taking does not show any signs of (the US acting) for us or to improve South Korea-Japan ties,” Na said, refuting the government’s position that Moon and Trump have a good relationship.

She went on to claim that Japan’s move is motivated by the Supreme Court’s ruling on forced labor.

“Diplomatic, political calculations for filling the gap between the judiciary’s ruling and reality are needed at this point,” Na said, accusing the ruling party and government of trying to incite anti-Japanese sentiments.

While Japan’s move has been interpreted by some here as a ploy to secure conservative votes in the upcoming national elections, some experts say that Japan may be taking a “preemptive hardline stance.”

“I think it could be a move to show that (Japanese government) will take a stronger position on difficult bilateral issues regarding damages to Japanese companies,” Korea National Diplomatic Academy professor Choi Eun-mi said.

Choi was referring to the South Korean court’s ruling that assets of Japanese firms involved in press-ganging Koreans should be liquidated to compensate the victims.

While noting that South Korea-Japan relations are unlikely to improve in the near future, she warned that the two sides should avoid taking a hard-line position.