The Japanese cabinet has decided to remove South Korea from a so-called white list of trade partners that enjoy expedited export controls. Needless to say, South Korea needs to address the national security concerns that led to the move. But Japan also must abstain from excessive trade restrictions and remain committed to free trade ideals.
Tokyo's decision follows the tougher export controls it imposed on semiconductor materials to South Korea. Countries excluded from the white list require case-by-case approval from Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on shipments of materials with military applications. This means exports could grind to a halt.
"The Korean government will resolutely take corresponding measures in response to Japan's unjustifiable economic retaliatory measures," South Korean President Moon Jae-in said.
Two days after Japan decided to remove the South from the white list, the Korea Fair Trade Commission fined four Japanese companies on the grounds that they fixed prices of auto parts supplied to South Korean automakers. Two of them now face criminal complaints as well.
The KFTC said it had planned to make the announcement on July 15, and that it was not retaliating against Japanese moves. But there is growing concern within the countries' business communities that the cycle of distrust between the two governments could breed economic tensions in a wide range of fields.
Some in South Korea are also talking of scrapping the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement. Bringing recent tensions into security cooperation is not ideal. The pact, which allows the countries to quickly share intelligence on North Korea, is vital in today's East Asian security landscape. North Korea has launched rockets four times in two weeks.
The impact has spread to grassroots exchanges. South Korean visitors to Japan have decreased, and leading airlines are cutting back on flights to Japan. Although the majority of South Koreans have remained low-key thus far, a protracted row between the governments will inevitably spread through society. It is unwise to encourage anti-Japanese activities, which so far have been limited in duration and scope.
"Exchanges between our people are important especially during times like these," Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said. He is right. But politicians on both sides are inflaming public opinion on the other side. They need to refrain from emotional back-and-forths and instead encourage security partnerships and grassroots exchanges, as is the role of politics.
Ties between Japanese and South Korean businesses have been damaged by rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate South Koreans forced to work for them during World War II, while relations between the countries' defense authorities took a hit when a South Korean vessel locked its fire-control radar on a Japanese patrol plane. The dispute would spiral out of control should it spread to individual travel, or exchanges between local communities.
The South Korean government must first come up with a new proposal on the wartime labor rulings, which triggered the latest rift. The longer this drags on, the worse off bilateral relations will be. While the U.S. has begun efforts to mediate the conflict, the Japanese and South Korean governments must try to resolve the problem on their own through dialogue.