July 23, 2019 13:20
Japan's ruling coalition of Liberal Democratic and Komeito parties scored a solid win in Sunday's election for the upper house of the Diet, although they fell short of the super-majority needed to propose constitutional revisions. Speaking to reporters following the elections, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said "constructive" talks with Korea will be possible only when Seoul gives an "appropriate response" to Japanese demands in a spat over compensation for Korean forced labor victims. Cheong Wa Dae promptly warned Abe "not to cross the line" after export curbs targeting Korea, and added that its response has been perfectly appropriate. The fresh jibes dash any hopes that a diplomatic solution is in sight.
The prevailing view in Japan is that Abe will increase pressure on Korea as he basks in the election results. Neither Cheong Wa Dae nor the ruling party here has any intention of extending an olive branch. It looks like both sides see no harm in letting the conflict drag on. Anti-Korean sentiment in Japan has only grown stronger and proved an easy vote-winner for Abe. The Moon administration is also wooing for domestic support, and the diplomatic row offers a distraction from Korea's economic problems. Both sides are using diplomatic tensions to score political points at home.
Such scheming will end up hurting both countries. Protracted export restrictions will deal a heavy blow to Korea's key industries at a time when the economy is already sputtering. But Japanese industries are so closely connected to Korean businesses that they also stand to suffer significant damage, while Japan faces increasing international criticism for damaging the global trade regime. Bloomberg has already criticized Abe over his "hopeless" trade war with Korea.
The problem may seem intractable, but the two governments need to avoid a worst-case scenario. Japan must ensure that export restrictions will not have a fatal impact on Korean businesses, and the Korean government needs to prevent victims of forced labor during World War II from seizing Japanese corporate assets here for compensation. Both sides need to set limits.
Political points scored by fueling anti-Japanese and anti-Korean sentiment will not last, and are tantamount to betraying one's country. The public will keep a sharp eye on both Moon and Abe and will not sit idle when they step over the line.
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