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The World Leaves Japan and South Korea to Slug It Out

SNA (Tokyo) – While Japan and South Korea are locked in an escalating and senseless set of retaliatory actions against one another, the rest of the world simply sits on the sidelines, declining to either take a side or even mediate between the two nations.

In particular, the recent export restrictions imposed by the Abe government on South Korea took the confrontation up several notches, and the latest reports of Japan stripping South Korea of its most-favored-nation is another major escalation.

Japan’s recent restrictions placed on the exportation of chemicals needed for South Korea’s lucrative semiconductor industry, which makes up nearly a quarter of the country’s exports, were described by South Korean President Moon Jae-In as a major national crisis. South Korea is dependent on Japan’s production of various compounds–namely, fluorinated polyimide, hydrogen fluoride, and photoresists–that are used to create products such as smartphone displays and circuit chips.

An announcement on July 1 that Japanese exporters of these materials would require licenses to sell to South Korea drew the attention of Korean chipmakers Samsung and SK Hynix, which now face fears of delays in production of up to ninety days as they scramble for the necessary permits.

The Abe government has denied accusations of the new restrictions are a result of diplomatic disagreement between the two countries, stating that licenses are necessary simply because of alleged carelessness in South Korea’s management of imports. South Korean officials maintain that none of these materials have gotten into the hands of North Korea and have labeled the export restrictions as retaliatory in nature.

The animosity of many South Koreans towards Japan runs deep, although the two countries normalized relations in 1965. The brutal actions of Japan during its colonial rule of Korea from 1910–1945, and the mishandling of postwar reconciliation by the United States in later years, soured the opinions of many and have, unfortunately, influenced both countries’ political and economic spheres.

Many believe that the export restrictions put in place are retaliation for the South Korean Supreme Court ruling last year which demanded compensation for ten Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during the Pacific War. The signing of the 1965 Treaty, which established normalized relations between the two countries, provided South Korea with over US$800 million in aid and loans for wartime atrocities. In Japan’s eyes, all calls for compensation were settled completely by the treaty.

In response to Japan’s export restrictions, many local South Korean companies have organized boycotts of Japanese goods. A 78-year-old South Korean man recently self-immolated outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul in protest, citing “his hostility against Japan” as the reason for his suicide. Protests have erupted outside of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, while South Korean activists recently broke into the Japanese consulate in Busan.

Beyond the social repercussions of the Japan-South Korea trade war, the restrictions placed upon the semiconductor industry have serious implications for the global economy. Japan produces 70% of the chemicals needed by the industry, meaning that disruptions in the global supply are likely to occur as a result of the dispute.

In the face of all these disputes, Seoul lobbied the World Trade Organization (WTO), stating that Japan’s actions on trade are unfair and a violation of the international body’s rules. South Korea hoped to convince other countries to oppose Japan’s recent restrictions by bringing the dispute to the attention of the WTO’s General Council, asserting that the export curbs threatened to disrupt the global economy and undermine the power of the organization.

During the WTO meeting on July 24, both countries simply exchanged accusatory remarks against one another. As South Korea made its case for opposition against Japan’s export practices, diplomats from other countries remained uninvolved in the dispute, saying little.

Given that both Japan and South Korea are closely allied to the United States, one might have expected action from that quarter. However, US National Security Adviser John Bolton recently stated that the United States does not intend to mediate in the dispute, instead opting for a more hands-off approach.

In the Trump Era, it seems that no country or international organization is willing to step up and provide genuine global leadership, instead just letting the global order fall apart, piece by piece.

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