- - Tuesday, July 30, 2019


The dispute between the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and Japan is escalating due to Japan’s decision on July 4 to restrict its export to South Korea of the three key materials to make memory chips and display panels — fluorinated polyamide, photoresist and hydrogen fluoride. Against the Japanese move, many South Koreans are responding by boycotting Japanese goods and services. The worsening relationship between the two of the closest allies of the United States is detrimental not only to the two countries of the dispute but also to the United States and, eventually, the international community at-large. 

The origin of the dispute goes back to the question of compensating Koreans who were forced to labor during the Japanese colonial occupation of Korea for 35 years until 1945. Even with the Japanese surrender in 1945 and the diplomatic normalization between South Korea and Japan in 1965, the wound of those who had to suffer remains fully unhealed until today. That means diplomats and politicians in both Seoul and Tokyo should exert more sincere efforts for the two neighboring countries to get over with the dark history and move forward. 

However, extreme caution should be exercised in expanding the dispute into the sphere of economy. Economy has its own rules of the game which should be guarded against any external interference. Otherwise, political and diplomatic falters can give negative impacts on highly interdependent network of global economy. We are already witnessing some of the distorting signs in related industries such as the rise of semiconductor prices in the global market. 

What is worse is that the unrestrained escalation of dispute can even damage security cooperation in North East Asia and beyond. The importance of the three-way security structure in North East Asia, which currently consists mainly of U.S.-Korea and U.S.-Japan bilateral alliances, is ever increasing; on the one hand, such a specific common threat as North Korean nuclear development is becoming more serious and, on the other, the declining hegemonic dominance of the United States demands more regional support.

Close economic cooperation between Korea and Japan has long been considered a critical cornerstone on which to build a robust bilateral security partnership between the two countries and the triangular regional security structure with the United States. No doubt, the precipitating Korea-Japan trade dispute is in danger of shaking the very bottom of the prospect for security cooperation.

Unfortunately, however, the two disputing parties of Korea and Japan find it difficult to resolve the problem by themselves because of their complicated history. The United States, which shares both economic and security interests with the two countries, is in a good position to play the mediating role by providing good offices for the two allies in North East Asia.

First of all, the United States should make sure that the history issue is dealt with as per se and is not expanded into the economic or security sphere. At the same time, the urgency of the matter should be taken into account. If we fail to contain the dispute at the early stage, like a genie out of the bottle, it will become more difficult to control at the latter stage.

Finally, for a starter or a booster for diplomatic efforts of the U.S. government, I would welcome as a member of Korean National Assembly if my colleagues on Capitol Hill play host to a three-way congressional dialogue including Japan to discuss this urgent matter.

As we hesitate, time is running away. Instead of being held hostage to dark history, shouldn’t we work together to open a brighter chapter of our common future?

• Yoon Sang-hyun is chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee of the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea.

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