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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Aug. 8)

Diplomacy 07:14 August 08, 2019

Contradictory remarks
Abe hit for weaponizing trade for forced labor issue

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has angered South Koreans by putting the blame on Seoul for the escalating bilateral trade conflict. On Tuesday, Abe said Korea is breaking an international accord by infringing upon a reparation agreement between the two countries.

His apparently wanted to accuse Korea of violating the 1965 treaty that normalized bilateral diplomatic ties. He and his government have already maintained that the treaty settled all reparation issues over Japan's 1910-45 occupation of Korea.

Based on such a position, the nationalist Abe government has strongly protested last year's rulings by the South Korean Supreme Court ordering Japanese firms to pay compensation to surviving Korean victims of forced labor during World War II. It has repeatedly called on the Moon Jae-in administration to take action against the rulings one way or another.

After attending the 74th commemoration of the U.S.' atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Abe said the bigger problem is a matter of trust regarding keeping promises between countries. He certainly meant that Seoul damaged trust with Tokyo through the court rulings on the forced labor issue.

Such remarks should not come as a surprise as they are nothing new. Yet they came four days after the Japanese government decided to remove Korea from its "whitelist" of 27 countries eligible for preferential treatment in trade. The irrational and unilateral measure followed Japan's July 4 imposition of export restrictions on three high-tech materials crucial for Korean firms to make semiconductors and display panels.

Abe may be free to hold Korea accountable for triggering Japan's trade measures. But he should realize that his remarks are proving that Japan is enacting export curbs against its Asian neighbor in apparent reprisal for the historical issues related to wartime force labor.

Tokyo has so far denied its action has anything to do with the court rulings. It has argued its trade measures are just designed to better manage its export control regime of strategic goods, citing security reasons. However, what Abe said clearly indicated that his administration is weaponizing trade as a means of retaliating over historical and diplomatic disputes.

In this sense, Abe and his policymakers are making contradictory and inconsistent remarks. Their goal is unequivocally to justify Japan's economic retaliation. They are putting more pressure on Seoul to take a step toward undoing the forced labor rulings. They have no regard for the separation of the three powers ― the legislative, judicial and executive branches.

On Wednesday, Japan promulgated a revised bill to strip Korea of its favored trading partner status. The bill is to take effect Aug. 28, making it difficult for Korean companies to purchase up to 1,120 Japanese goods, including materials, parts and equipment.

We urge Tokyo to return to return to dialogue to find a diplomatic solution. Japan should retract all export curbs targeting Korea immediately. No one can win a trade war of any kind.

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