Conflict between South Korea and Japan surrounding Tokyo’s export restrictions on high-tech materials is worsening rather than subsiding.
The Japanese government is expected to pass a bill at a Cabinet meeting Friday, removing Korea from a so-called “whitelist” of 27 trusted trade partners.
If the Cabinet approves the bill, it will likely take effect late this month or thereabouts.
If Korea is removed from the list, Japanese exporters of 1,115 strategic items will have to get permission from their government whenever they ship those items to Korea. The impact of this measure will be far stronger than that of the existing export controls, which affect just three materials needed to make semiconductors and display panels.
According to Japanese news media, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is unlikely to meet Korean President Moon Jae-in during the UN General Assembly in September unless Seoul takes steps to address Tokyo’s concerns over World War II-era forced labor cases and other issues.
Tokyo has effectively admitted that it is retaliating for the recent Korean Supreme Court rulings on wartime forced labor cases.
In the international community, voices have been growing against Japan’s ill-founded and unjustifiable retaliatory moves, but Tokyo seems obdurate.
If Korea is taken off the whitelist, most of its industries will suffer. That is as good as a national emergency. The Korean government will likely take strong countermeasures.
Continuing this course toward a head-on collision would ruin bilateral relations and further darken prospects for a diplomatic solution. Tokyo must not cross the Rubicon.
In this situation, it is noteworthy that the door for diplomatic dialogue is ajar.
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and her Japanese counterpart, Taro Kono, are scheduled to attend the Association of South East Asian Nations Regional Forum in Bangkok on Friday. Reportedly, there is a good chance they could hold bilateral talks on the sidelines of the forum a day earlier.
If they meet, it will be the first face-to-face encounter between the two top diplomats since the trade dispute began early last month.
Their talks, if realized, would be a small first step toward resolving the problem. Though it is hard to expect remarkable progress, a meeting would be meaningful in that it could lead to follow-up talks.
It is important for both sides to reach a consensus that the situation cannot be left as is.
The point is to start negotiations as quickly as possible.
Given that the conflicts arose from the Korean Supreme Court rulings awarding damages to victims of forced labor, Seoul needs to figure out creative and bold solutions that respect the rulings and at the same time prevent its ties with Japan from coming to a catastrophic end.
A rigid interpretation of the judicial rulings could make it difficult to work out a flexible and proactive proposal.
The current conflicts ought to be approached with an open mind and flexible thinking.
The ongoing boycott of Japanese products has been gaining momentum, and it may help the Korean government stand firm against Japan.
But reprisals tend to breed more reprisals, big or small.
Efforts are needed to avoid confrontation and find a way to ease the strained relations. That is diplomacy.
Even if the space for diplomacy has grown narrower, both countries must make efforts to put their animosity aside and make reciprocal concessions through dialogue.
Any act that instigates anti-Japanese or anti-Korean chauvinism and stigmatizes those with different opinions as traitors would only worsen the problem.
About a month has passed since Japan imposed its export restrictions.
Criticism, rather than dialogue, and emotion, rather than reason, have dominated the two nations. There were even politically motivated incidents.
But moderate voices calling on both nations to solve the problem through diplomacy, not confrontation, have been gaining momentum.
Both countries need to make the most of diplomatic events like the upcoming forum to open up opportunities for dialogue.
With cool heads and with eyes looking ahead to the future, they must try harder to find a way to resolve the conflicts.