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[Jongsoo Lee] Explosive combination of history, trade and territory

The recent escalation in tension between Japan and South Korea has created an explosive situation. Both sides must do all they can to defuse tension, and the global community -- including the United States, China and Russia -- needs to be part of the solution.

Because the semiconductor and display industries are at the very heart of Korea’s economy and export earnings, Japan’s imposition of export restrictions on three chemicals indispensable to these industries amounts to a stab at the very heart of Korea.

In comparison, the recent ruling by Korea’s courts that ordered the seizure of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ assets in Korea is a slap on the wrist of Japan. The damage to Japan is limited to Mitsubishi’s assets in Korea and is not an all-out assault on Mitsubishi or the Japanese economy. Japan’s response to the court ruling is therefore way out of proportion and constitutes an unnecessarily dangerous escalation of tension.

Japan’s action is without precedent in the history of bilateral relations since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1965.

Although there have been spats between the two neighbors, Japan had never before attempted to overtly inflict a crippling blow on Korea’s economy. Its action has created a grave national crisis in Korea, and many Koreans see it as Japan crossing a red line, an effective declaration of war.

Already, over 60 percent of Koreans have taken part in a boycott of Japanese goods and many have canceled trips to Japan.

What makes this situation so explosive is that, given the legacy of Japanese colonial rule over Korea, no Korean politician can afford to be seen as weak vis-a-vis Japan, and nothing whips up Korean nationalism more than Japan’s affront to Korea’s sovereignty.

In this charged political context, the latest incursion into Korean airspace by a Russian warplane and the response by Korea and Japan illustrate the perils of an “incident” escalating out of control. Because both Korea and Japan claim sovereignty over the Dokdo islets (Takeshima in Japanese) in the waters between Korea and Japan, the Russian incursion triggered Korea and Japan to dispatch warplanes into the same area.

Though no exchange of fire took place between Japanese and Korean warplanes this time, one shudders to think what would happen in the future if a similar incident led to the downing of a Korean or Japanese warplane.

Korean sovereignty over Dokdo is considered inviolate in Korea, and any Japanese military incursion would be met with a decisive military response.

Similarly, in the current charged atmosphere in Korea and Japan, one shudders to think what would happen if an anti-Japanese “incident” took place in Korea or an anti-Korean “incident” took place in Japan and then escalated out of control.

Both Seoul and Tokyo must calm down nationalistic fervor among their populace and do all they can to settle their differences via negotiations and, if necessary, mediation. A face-saving formula for both sides can be worked out through official or behind-the-scenes talks.

The United States must wake up to the gravity of the situation and exert all leverage it has on Seoul and Tokyo to bring the two sides to an agreement. China and Russia must realize the dangers inherent in their air patrols in the waters between Korea and Japan and prevent any future incursion into the airspace around Dokdo.

The global community, including those nations that will be impacted by the supply chain disruptions caused by Japan’s export restrictions, can encourage Japan to settle its differences with Korea via means other than enforcing the export restrictions.

Japan must realize that its export restrictions are far more dangerous than beneficial for its own national interests and must return to the negotiating table with Korea. 

Jongsoo Lee
Jongsoo Lee is senior managing director at Brock Securities and center associate at Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University. The opinions expressed in this essay are solely his own. He can be followed on Twitter at @jameslee004 -- Ed.