In early July this year, Japan’s Abe administration suddenly tightened measures on Korean exports after heavily criticizing the Korean Supreme Court’s ruling that ordered a Japanese corporation to pay damages to Korean victims of forced labor during Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula. Tokyo decided to apply an export approval system for individual items instead of the existing one utilizing inclusive approval for three key materials Japan exports to Korea for the production of semiconductors and other related products. I believe that these restrictions will result in self-harm to Japan and constitute a strategic failure with no cause or practical reason in the long run, though they will inflict short-term damage to the Korean economy. This is because such sanctions will ruin bilateral relations and hurt Japan like a boomerang returning to harm the thrower. Furthermore, the restrictions will also damage free trade and international commitments on export control, thus hindering global peace and prosperity. I present the following reasons for my position.

First, Japan’s decision to impose the export restrictions harms the principle of separating economics from politics, which Seoul and Tokyo used to consider an unwritten rule. Over the history of bilateral relations, both countries have tried to manage conflict by keeping issues within the boundaries of politics and the economy even if the two sides exchanged harsh words. Thus the Abe administration’s decision to respond to political and diplomatic disputes with Korea by resorting to economic retaliation is a foul that deserves heavy blame because it breaks bilateral trust and agreements.

Second, while Japan argues that the “vulnerability” of Korea’s export control system justifies its restrictions, such sanctions are a violation of international security law, which is regarded as an exceptional reason of international regulation of free trade. Contrary to Tokyo’s claim, however, Seoul has the world’s leading export control system and Korea is also considered an exemplary country in the implementation of such a system. The country has fully observed all international regulations and commitments on disarmament and nonproliferation, as well as those of export control, and has also chaired quite a few international export control regimes. For this reason, Japan’s suspicion of Korea’s export control system is tantamount to complete denial of all international regulations on nonproliferation and the global order for export control.

Japan says granting a country the status of a preferential nation for export control is a sovereign right. While this is true, if Tokyo grants or excludes a country due to strained bilateral ties or its own arbitrary decision, this will damage Japan’s credibility in upholding international commitments and thus constitute an action disrupting global order.

Next, Japan’s restrictions pose a threat to global free trade, which is supposed to be the universal order of the international community. Such measures run counter to the principle of free trade and lower the efficiency of the world economy because they block the labor division structure between Korea and Japan and the global value chain. If Korea cannot produce semiconductors because of Japan, the global electronics and information and communications technology industries will be hit hard, and this will hinder the development of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Finally, the sanctions will result in the “de-coupling” of the Korean and Japanese economies by lessening Korea’s economic reliance on Japan and vice versa, thus lowering the competitiveness of both sides and reducing the range of economic cooperation among Korea, the U.S. and Japan. The trade row’s negative effect on politics is another worrying aspect. The close economic dependence between the two economies, which has cushioned the impact of bilateral political conflict, will collapse if both countries give up their division of labor and reduce their interdependence due to the latest restrictions.

Unless Japan intends to completely separate itself from Korea, it must immediately lift its export restrictions. Tokyo should also hold dialogue with Seoul on resolving the issue if the former’s decision to impose sanctions was based on the Korean court ruling on the forced labor victims, Korea’s export control system or inter-Korean relations. Thus Korea and Japan must bolster their economic cooperation and strategic partnership not only to promote the national interests of each nation, but also to ensure peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.

Jun Bong-Geun is a professor at the Korean National Diplomatic Academy who is also acting president of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Translated Korea.net staff writer Yoon Sojung