Japan is primarily to blame for starting a trade war with South Korea over historical disputes, and for the consequent escalation of tension between the two countries. This, however, should not warrant excessive, reckless and emotive responses from our side.
In view of the degree of Japan’s provocation -- unprecedented economic retaliation in the form of export curbs -- the rise of anti-Japanese public sentiment in South Korea may be inevitable. The campaign to boycott Japanese goods and refrain from traveling to Japan is gaining momentum, with some sensible people advising caution to prevent it from turning into a hate movement.
The problem is that politicians -- from President Moon Jae-in down to lawmakers within the ruling and opposition parties -- are fanning the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment to take advantage of it for their own political gain.
Of course it is important for political leaders, not least the chief executive, to stand firm against Japan’s provocation and boost public confidence in overcoming it. But it is one thing to call for national unity and criticize Japan’s provocative acts; it is another to incite excessive, emotive anti-Japan sentiment.
One of Moon’s first reactions to Japan’s decision to remove South Korea from the whitelist of countries with preferential export treatment was to say South Korea “will not lose to Japan ever again.”
He also cited the case of Adm. Yi Sun-shin, who with only a dozen vessels defeated far larger Japanese fleets during the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 16th century. One of Moon’s former aides, Cho Kuk, mentioned the “bamboo spears” used by participants in an anti-establishment, anti-Japanese peasant movement in the late 19th century.
Another statement from Moon also indicated what is on his mind: tying the current crisis in relations with Japan to his appeasement policy toward North Korea. Moon said in a recent meeting with his top aides at Cheong Wa Dae that economic cooperation with North Korea could strengthen the national economy so much that it would be possible to overtake Japan.
Indeed, a unified Korea would have a far stronger economy than either side has now, but is it realistic to talk about synergy from the integration of the two Koreas’ economies at a time when the government, businesses and the public are urgently required to pull together to minimize the impending impact of Japan’s export curbs? Also, look at the spate of missiles fired by the North in recent weeks, which Pyongyang clearly called a warning to the South.
In tune with the Moon administration, ruling party members are busy fanning nationalist, anti-Japanese sentiment, believing that it will help their party win public support, especially ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for next April.
Rep. Choi Jae-sung, head of the ruling Democratic Party’s special panel formed to tackle what the party calls Japan’s “economic aggression,” said the Seoul government should consider a ban on travel to Tokyo, mentioning fear of radioactive materials in the city. He also hinted at linking the radioactivity scare -- which stems from the 2011 meltdown of the nuclear power plant in Fukushima -- to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Another senior ruling party lawmaker, Rep. Sul Hoon, publicly demanded at the party’s Executive Council meeting that the government discontinue an agreement to share security intelligence with Japan in retaliation for the export curbs. He suggested that the Seoul government notify Tokyo of the decision on Aug. 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II and the end of its colonial rule of Korea. It is sad to see a fourth-term lawmaker tackle the issue in such a sentimental way.
When it comes to excessive politicizing of the conflict with Japan, the main opposition Liberty Korea Party is not blameless either.
The party found fault with President Moon for eating raw fish -- which is popular at Japanese restaurants -- at a restaurant in Busan recently and with Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan for purportedly drinking Japanese rice wine sake at a restaurant in Seoul. What Lee drank turned out to be a Korean liquor similar to sake, and the opposition party drew public backlash for using anti-Japanese sentiment to attack its opponents.
With the impact of the South Korea-Japan trade war looming large, the US and China are engaged in increasingly fierce trade and currency disputes. The recent statement by the US Treasury Department designating China as a currency manipulator has already begun battering the global economy and the South Korean economy.
This is another reason South Korean political parties should refrain from excessive politicization of the current conflict with Japan. Instead, they should join forces to prod the South Korean and Japanese governments to come to the negotiation table as soon as possible.