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INTERNATIONAL > East Asia & Pacific

Kantei’s exclusion of MOFA exacerbates Japan-ROK tensions

  • August 26, 2019
  • , AERA , p. 62-63
  • JMH Translation

By Yoshihiro Makino, senior staff writer at Asahi Shimbun


The conflict between Japan and South Korea further intensified with Japan’s imposition of tighter export controls. The responsibility lies with the government of President Moon Jae-in, which places too much emphasis on “respecting justice.” Since its inauguration in May 2017, the Moon administration has adamantly asserted itself on issues involving Japan, including the termination of the Japan-ROK agreement on the comfort women issue, the flag of the Self-Defense Forces flown on escort ships and the illumination of fire-control radar against a SDF plane. It has paid no consideration to Japan. 


A majority of the Japanese people support the government’s recent decision to impose tougher controls. There is no doubt that Moon’s handling of these issues has stoked public discontent in Japan. 


MOFA left out of decision-making process on export controls


But the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been handling its conflict with South Korea in the wrong way.


On July 1, Japan announced that it would impose export controls on three kinds of semiconductor materials bound for South Korea. The step could have a devastating impact on South Korea’s key industries. The boycott of Japanese products spread inside South Korea and tensions between the two nations escalated.


It was hard to believe, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) was not aware of the details of this step until it was announced. “We did not know what the three items were until the last moment,” said a MOFA official.


The strengthening of export controls was originally proposed by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). The Prime Minister’s Office (Kantei) had ordered ministries and agencies to consider measures that can keep South Korea in check. And METI came up with this idea.  


According to a government source, METI was long concerned that South Korea’s export control regime was insufficient. Since 2016, it has been demanding South Korea enter bilateral talks, as it worried Japanese shipments to South Korea could be re-exported to third nations. But South Korea did not respond to Japan’s request, and rumors spread that products that three Japanese firms shipped to South Korea may have been smuggled to third nations. It was against this background that METI presented the idea of export controls to the Kantei.


“We must acknowledge that we had taken a lenient policy with South Korea before,” said another MOFA official. On a number of occasions, Japan looked into South Korea’s demands during negotiations on subjects such as fisheries and a free trade agreement. On the part of Abe, he tirelessly lobbied his supporters to win their understanding so he could forge a deal with South Korea on the comfort women issue by making concessions. Because of this, he was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with MOFA’s handling of South Korea.


But the Kantei’s shutting out MOFA gave rise to various problems.


First of all, the Moon administration, which had been criticized for strained Japan-ROK ties and botched economic policies inside South Korea, regained steam. Public support edged up in July albeit slightly. President Moon advocated a “national crisis due to Japan’s outrages” and passed the blame for economic stagnation caused by his policies, such as a sharp increase in the minimum wage and the bashing of big-name corporations, which allegedly had links with the former Park administration, to Japan. The three kinds of semiconductor materials that became subject to Japan’s export controls are indispensable to South Korea’s chip production. As Moon had taken excessively radical steps, even the conservative Liberty Korea Party, the largest opposition force, could not resist Moon’s anti-Japan campaign and ended up favoring issuing a statement and a congressional resolution that condemned Japan.


“Japan could have acted better if it knew ins and outs of the South Korean political landscape,” said an ex-MOFA official.


Washington’s attempt to mediate failed


The diplomatic channels did not function either. Japan failed to communicate with the U.S. before it decided to impose export controls. Anger grew within the U.S. government. “We hear the Japanese government saying that it won approval or the green light from the U.S., but that is not true,” said a U.S. government official.


The U.S. mediation did not work out as the Kantei tilted toward aggressive action. On July 30, a senior U.S. government official disclosed that Washington is calling on Tokyo and Seoul to consider signing a “standstill agreement” over the escalation of their conflicts. But on the following day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga denied that by saying “it had no basis in fact.”


According to Japanese and U.S. officials, the U.S. began to worry soon after it learned Japan would endorse a cabinet decision to remove South Korea from the list of “white countries” as early as Aug. 2. It would miss the opportunity to mediate if it waited for the Japanese, U.S. and South Korean ministers of foreign affairs to meet in Bangkok on Aug. 2. For this reason, the U.S. unveiled on July 30 that it was approaching Japan and South Korea to mediate.


Washington was prompted to act as a mediator due to a piece of advice MOFA gave to the U.S. Department of State. MOFA reportedly recommended that “either President Trump or Secretary Pompeo directly speak with their counterparts to change the situation.”


But this was not realized. It became clear through Suga’s remarks in response to the U.S. mediation offer that MOFA had no influence on the Kantei’s decision-making.


In South Korea, meanwhile, anxiety was also growing that Tokyo-Seoul tensions would not be eased through diplomatic channels alone and the government therefore secretly sent National Security Office Director Chung Eui-yong to Japan for a meeting with Secretary-General of the National Security Secretariat Shotaro Yachi. But as Prime Minister Abe and President Moon refused to make concessions, this final negotiation failed to produce results.


The export control step was taken with an eye on Upper House election


The Kantei’s shutting out MOFA was not the only problem.


“It was hard to deny the speculation that the government introduced export controls to “win votes in the Upper House election (which took place on July 21),” said a Japanese government official. In fact, an Asahi Shimbun poll showed that 56% of people surveyed supported the government’s export controls. Right after the Upper House election, a Japanese expert on South Korean affairs heard a Liberal Democratic Party member, who won an Upper House seat, saying “I’ve never received such strong backing in an election campaign before. I have no choice but to act tough on South Korea.”


Since there was political motivation involved in the export control step, the government failed to offer a sufficient explanation. On Twitter, METI Minister Hiroshige Seko first posted that “our relationship of trust was significantly undermined” because Japan was not able to receive from South Korea a proposal for a satisfactory solution to  the requisitioned worker issue before the G20 summit and explained that this was one reason for Japan’s taking a step to control exports. But this sparked criticism that the government “retaliated for a political matter in the form of economic retaliation.” METI soon reworked the reasoning and said that the “introduction of tougher export controls is a measure taken domestically and is irrespective of the requisitioned worker case.”


But now that the government has adopted the logic of separating the “requisitioned worker case and the export controls,” it won’t be able to withdraw the export controls even if South Korea makes concessions in the requisitioned worker case. According to a source close to the Kantei, support for an aggressive policy is growing stronger backed by criticism over MOFA’s past handling of South Korea. 


There are countries that are looking at the Japan-ROK conflicts with an amused smile.


North Korea is calling on South Korea to terminate its defense cooperation with Japan through a national news agency. On July 22, China and Russia flew military planes over air defense identification zones set by Japan and South Korea in the name of a “joint patrol mission.” On Aug. 2, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev landed on Etorofu Island. On Aug. 5, the Russian military began a military drill in areas including the Northern Territories.


The Abe government turned down the U.S. offer to mediate. The view is spreading even within the government that it will be criticized for tarnishing Japan’s economic and international reputation from a long-term perspective.” (Abridged)

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