SEJONG -- This year on Aug. 15, South Koreans will celebrate Liberation Day and mark the 74th anniversary of Korean independence amid a trade war with Japan.
Then on Sept. 18 the nation will commemorate 120 years of railroad history, with some saying Japan initiated the railway construction in 1899 in an attempt to plunder Korea’s resources.
Since its liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Korea has strived to catch up with its neighbor in a variety of industrial sectors. While Japan is the world’s fourth-largest exporter, Korea isn’t far behind, ranking sixth as of 2018.
Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (AP)
But the current trade row, centering on retaliatory measures imposed by Japan after the Korean Supreme Court sided with victims of wartime forced labor against Japanese companies operating in Korea, is aggravating downside risks throughout the Korean economy.
The Japanese currency, which traded at 1,006.21 won per 100 yen five months ago on March 5, surged 14.1 percent to close at 1,148.09 won on Aug. 5. The Korean won has also lost ground to other key currencies such as the US dollar and the euro.
While some Koreans are boycotting Japanese products and tourism, others have called on the Moon Jae-in administration to resolve the dispute through diplomacy.
“Can the government sever diplomatic relations with Japan? As the scenario is illogical, the Moon administration should refrain from further provoking Japan,” one online commenter said. “In addition, the trade war cannot justify the government’s poor economic performance for the past two years.”
Public opinion is split when it comes to Seoul’s countermeasures against Tokyo, local pollsters revealed.
According to a survey released Aug. 3 by SA Consulting, 50.9 percent of the 1,000 Koreans surveyed said they supported the government’s response. A similar number, 45.5 percent, replied that the government wasn’t handling the situation well.
People who disapprove of the government’s response are in the majority among those in their 20s (49.3 percent negative versus 46.2 percent positive) and those in their 60s or older (35.5 percent positive versus 60.2 percent negative).
Critics outnumbered supporters in the areas comprising Sejong, Daejeon and the Chungcheong provinces; Busan, Ulsan and South Gyeongsang Province; and Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province; as well as in the provinces of Jeju and Gangwon.
Concerning the nation’s economic outlook for the second half, only 16.9 percent of the 1,000 respondents predicted an improvement, while 48.1 percent said they expected the economy to worsen further.
The poll also found that President Moon’s approval rating was lowest among men in their 20s at 25 percent. It was next lowest among men in their 60s at 31.7 percent, women in their 60s at 34.6 percent and women in their 50s at 42.3 percent.
Disapproval of Moon was higher than approval in all four demographic groups.
The approval rating for the ruling Democratic Party was also lowest among men in their 20s at 19.2 percent, in sharp contrast to its 59 percent approval rating among women in their 20s.
(Graphic by Han Chang-duck/The Korea Herald)
According to another poll, conducted by Opinion Research Justice and released July 31, 49.9 percent of the 1,000 respondents forecast that Korea would sustain greater losses than Japan as a result of this economic war. That view was shared by 54 percent of the men and 45.9 percent of the women.
Of all the respondents, 25.9 percent said the trade dispute would harm Japan more than Korea and 20.2 said both countries would suffer similar losses.
Opinion was likewise divided on the boycott of products made in Japan -- 42.7 percent said it would aggravate bilateral conflicts, while 47 percent said it would help resolve the dispute. Male respondents were much more evenly split, with 45.9 percent expressing negative views about the boycott and 46.4 percent seeing it as a good thing.
The Opinion Research Justice survey also showed that Moon’s approval rating had fallen below 40 percent. While 39 percent said they supported the president, 41.8 percent voiced disapproval.
“Korea’s GDP scale is the one-third of that of Japan, and the population level is 40 vs. 100. The feud is likely to deal a more serious blow to Korea, to the full range of business sectors,” said a research analyst in Seoul.
By Kim Yon-se (email@example.com