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[Editorial] Step forward

Seoul, Tokyo need to enhance cooperation amid rising US-China rivalry

Though not unexpected, it is still disappointing that Japan has ignored South Korea’s latest call to lift export restrictions.

On May 12, Seoul gave Tokyo until the end of the month to retract export curbs imposed in July last year on three high-tech materials. The measure was taken in an apparent reprisal against an earlier ruling by the Supreme Court here that ordered Japanese firms to compensate Koreans forced into hard labor during Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the peninsula. It was followed by the removal of South Korea from Japan’s list of trusted trading partners.

Seoul has suggested Tokyo’s failure to make a positive response would lead it to resume its complaint process at the World Trade Organization.

Hoping for a breakthrough, South Korea in November decided to suspend the process and conditionally postponed the planned termination of a military information-sharing accord with Japan.

In December, Tokyo partially lifted curbs on exports of photoresist to South Korea -- which seemed to be a goodwill gesture ahead of a meeting between the leaders of the two countries. It has since persisted with the trade curbs.

In addition to resuming the dispute settlement process at the global trade body, Seoul might revisit the option of withdrawing from the General Security of Military Information Agreement with Tokyo, although it will be hard in practice for South Korea to terminate the military intelligence-sharing pact, which the US regards as crucial for the trilateral security cooperation with its two key Asian allies.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has been arguing that the issue of GSOMIA extension is separate from its export restrictions on South Korea.

It may be so. But it should also be pointed out that, despite its denial, Tokyo has been attempting to use trade curbs to put pressure on Seoul in a dispute over the unfortunate past shared by the two sides.

It is undesirable and unwise for the two neighboring nations to stay on the confrontational course when they are struggling with mounting economic difficulties amid the coronavirus pandemic coupled with rising tensions between the US and China.

Japan needs to immediately lift trade curbs on South Korea to open the way to restore and strengthen bilateral economic cooperation between the two countries.

Restraint on bilateral economic ties amid the prolonged dispute over historical issues has done significant damage to both sides in terms of investment, employment and corporate profits.

Japan’s export curbs on South Korea have resulted in losses for its high-tech companies and the country has accelerated efforts to replace the raw materials with locally produced ones. But such an endeavor has increased costs for South Korean companies.

Rapid and fundamental changes in global economic conditions require South Korea and Japan to leave their unfortunate pasts behind and join hands to cope with the unprecedented challenges facing them.

Certainly, history should not be forgotten. But it is impossible to take a step forward while being bounded by the past.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Premier Abe should not be further tempted to fuel public antagonism against each other’s country for their domestic political purposes.

In the immediate term, the two nations share the need to cooperate in coping with the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eventually, they might be able to form an economic community or an economic alliance, which could bring tremendous benefits to both sides.

The integration of the South Korean and Japanese economies, which are the world’s 10th- and third-largest, would create a common market with nearly 200 million consumers who have relatively equal and strong purchasing power. It would also help companies of the two nations strengthen their international competitiveness and secure more business opportunities in other parts of the world.

Above all, the bold initiative could enable the two countries -- South Korea in particular -- to be less swayed by the rising rivalry between the US and China.

In an unexpected move, US President Donald Trump said Saturday he plans to invite South Korea to this year’s Group of Seven summit rescheduled for September, along with three other non-G-7 countries of Australia, India and Russia. The Moon administration seems somewhat reserved about the invitation from Trump, who holds the annually rotating chair of the group, out of concerns that the US move might be regarded by China as intended to keep it in check.

Though inconceivable now, it would help lessen the complexity of South Korea’s subtle position, if it could present a coordinated stance with Japan as close neighbors.
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