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Nikkei Editorial

Japan and South Korea must avoid tit for tat over wartime row

Borrowing Trump's playbook hurts Tokyo's reputation as free trade champion

Protesters gather near a statue of a wartime laborer in Busan on July 1.   © Kyodo

Tokyo has launched a de facto countermeasure to South Korea's handling of a string of lawsuits against Japanese companies regarding wartime labor.

While the South Korean side initiated the current chain of events, and it is understandable that Tokyo is pushing Seoul to fix the relationship, Japan's tactics are alarming. Resorting to trade policy measures will have serious negative side effects on business and do more harm than good in the long run.

Japan seeks to tighten controls on exports of industrial materials used to make semiconductors. Tokyo will cancel the preferential treatment it has awarded South Korea over shipments of these materials, subjecting exporters to checks and approvals on a case-by-case basis.

This is expected to hurt South Korea's electrical machinery industry and also hit Japanese companies, who count South Korean manufacturers as major customers.

A verdict delivered by the South Korean Supreme Court in October 2018 ordered Nippon Steel to pay damages to South Koreans who had been forced to work during Japan's colonial rule. The ruling eroded the legal foundations of Japan-South Korea relations, which were built through cooperation on both sides covering various areas since diplomatic ties were normalized in 1965.

The South Korean government has long held that the 1965 bilateral accord settled the compensation issue. If it still maintains that position, the logical step is for the government to unconditionally agree to engage in bilateral talks with Tokyo over how to address the court's ruling.

That said, Tokyo's decision to target the semiconductor industry is problematic. South Korean manufacturing of microchips, smartphones and consumer electronics is supported by Japanese parts, materials and manufacturing equipment. The three products to be placed under stricter controls, including hydrogen fluoride, are indispensable for chipmaking, and Japanese suppliers command a very high share of the global markets.

If the supply of Japanese parts or materials is interrupted, subsequently disrupting production at South Korean chipmakers such as Samsung Electronics, it could create turmoil across the world. Production of all equipment and devices with microchips, including smartphones and PCs, will be affected.

Japan cannot be allowed to cause any supply shocks. The country's use of trade policy as a tool for international politics is similar to the tactics employed by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and the Chinese government. Japan has avoided this kind of behavior.

Under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has earned a global reputation as a standard-bearer for free trade. Its action against South Korea risks damaging this reputation.

If Seoul retaliates and a cycle of retribution ensues, Japan-South Korea relations will suffer. Over 10 million people travel between the two countries annually, with South Korean visitors to Japan accounting for 70% of that figure. People to people exchanges among youngsters are the bedrock of the relationship and must be protected.

The two countries should never abandon efforts to solve even the most difficult problems through dialogue.

The Japanese government is also set to remove South Korea from its "white list" of countries that enjoy minimum restrictions on transfers of technology with national security implications. While the 2018 radar lock-on incident by a Korean warship was an extremely dangerous act, having Japan and South Korea -- two U.S. allies -- at loggerheads clouds the outlook for security cooperation in the region.

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