Japan fired the latest salvo in its rapidly-escalating feud with South Korea on Friday by approving a proposal to remove South Korea from its list of trusted trading partners.
Seoul called on Tokyo to abort the action before it goes into effect on August 28, describing it as a “public humiliation” that would not soon be forgiven.
The Japanese Cabinet on Friday signed off on a plan to remove South Korea from Japan’s “whitelist” of most trusted trading partners, imposing new restrictions and more complex procedures for exporting certain items with potential military applications. There are over 1,100 items on the list, many of them crucial to South Korea’s electronics industry. South Korea would become the first country Japan has removed from its whitelist.
The current crisis began when Japan accused South Korea of allowing some chemicals used by electronics manufacturers to be shipped to North Korea in defiance of export restrictions. This action, in turn, was widely seen as Japan’s angry response to a South Korean Supreme Court decision that Japanese companies could be forced to pay compensation to the victims of forced labor during World War II.
The foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea held last-ditch talks at the ASEAN summit in Bangkok on Friday to stave off Japan’s delisting, but most other South Korean officials reacted with anger, threatening the suspension of intelligence-sharing agreements with Japan in reprisal. Such measures could very well impede American efforts to pressure North Korea into denuclearizing, while the escalating trade battle between South Korea and Japan will certainly have economic repercussions around the world.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in made the unusual decision to broadcast his Friday cabinet meeting live, deploying some very heavy verbal artillery against the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, which he described as a “selfish nuisance.”
“We won’t be defeated by Japan again,” Moon declared, making a provocative reference to Imperial Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula.
Other members of Moon’s cabinet stressed that South Korea sees its removal from Japan’s whitelist as a grave insult – a slight Seoul returned in kind by summoning the Japanese ambassador to declare that not only will Japan be struck from South Korea’s list of trusted partners, but it is no longer seen as a “friendly nation.”
The South Koreans highlighted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing “great concern” about Japan’s action when he met with South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kano at the ASEAN summit. The Associated Press described the three-way meeting as “frosty” and noted no hands were shaken afterward.
Kang said she warned her Japanese counterpart about the “grave consequences it would have on our bilateral relations if the measure was imposed.”
“I said that the security cooperation framework between South Korea and Japan may be affected,” she told reporters in Bangkok.