[News analysis] The intentions behind Abe’s export controls

Posted on : 2019-07-10 16:01 KST Modified on : 2019-07-10 16:01 KST
Many analysts point to long-term goal of constitutional revision
South Korean President Moon Jae-in passed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after the two leaders briefly shake hands at the G20 Osaka summit on June 28. (Yonhap News)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in passed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after the two leaders briefly shake hands at the G20 Osaka summit on June 28. (Yonhap News)

With South Korea-Japan relations thrown into turmoil by the Abe administration’s imposition of controls on exports of semiconductor and display materials to South Korea, a critical question is whether the election in Japan’s House of Councillors on July 21 will lead to a breakthrough or whether the trade dispute will keep dragging on. This question is directly linked to what Japan hopes to achieve from the export controls.

After the House of Councillors election, the Abe administration will decide whether or not to remove South Korea from the “white list” of countries that receive preferential treatment on exports of cutting-edge materials according to Japan’s Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Management Act. That decision will likely serve as a barometer for whether this dispute will become protracted.

At first, many analysts assumed that Japan’s goal was to rile up its conservative base by bashing South Korea in order to win big in the House of Councillors election, securing a two-thirds majority in favor of amending the constitution. In defiance of predictions that Japan would take retaliatory measures toward the end of the year, when the South Korean assets of the Japanese companies ordered by South Korea’s Supreme Court to compensate victims of forced labor are slated to be auctioned off, the Abe administration announced it was imposing export controls on July 1, the same day that the House of Councillors election was publicized. That prompted many analysts to conclude that the Abe administration had chosen the timing of the export restrictions to coincide with that election.

Beyond the election

But Abe has been only mentioning the export controls when questions come up on television programs or in party debates, without first bringing up the subject himself. This goes against expectations that Abe would aggressively exploit “Korea bashing” as an election strategy. While his reserve may partially be motivated by concerns about a backlash from the business community, it’s also prompting analysts to think that the Abe administration was looking beyond the election when it imposed the export controls.

“It’s true that these measures have been highly effective at whipping up the conservative vote. Abe’s goal seems to be winning not only the House of Councillors election but also the House of Representatives election and [to use that momentum] to amend the constitution,” Lee Yeong-chae, a professor at Keisen University, told the Hankyoreh on July 9. Abe has said his lifelong mission is to revise Japan’s “Peace Constitution,” which bans Japan from possessing an army and forbids it from waging war.

At the moment, Japanese parties that support a constitutional amendment — including Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party, Komeito, and the Japan Innovation Party — already hold a two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. Needless to say, that means a two-thirds majority in the House of Councillors would pave the way for sending constitutional amendment to a popular referendum. But considering that the Japanese public is still opposed to reviving the Peace Constitution’s crucial Article 9, Abe is apparently trying to maximize the chances of amending the constitution and underline the legitimacy of such an effort by winning another election in the House of Representatives. While the current term of the House of Representatives, Japan’s lower house, will end in the fall of 2021, the Japanese prime minister has the power to dissolve the house at a time of his choosing, so lawmakers there rarely serve to the official end of their term.

“The fact that Abe is using this as an election strategy is very worrisome for all activists. There’s a measure of chauvinism in Japanese society, and the fact is that some people support these measures,” said Ken Takada, secretary-general of a civic group that opposes amendments to Japan’s constitution. Ken has spent the last 34 years advocating the same cause.

Abe may be trying to completely reset relations with S. Korea

Some analysts think that Abe is attempting not only to gain the advantage in the election but also to completely reset Japan’s relationship with South Korea. In that event, the Japanese government is likely to keep the export controls in place and to drag the situation out for a long time, waiting for South Korea to make considerable concessions.

“This can’t be described as completely unrelated to the election, nor can it be seen as solely an election strategy,” said Junya Nishino, a professor at Keio University.

“This issue has come up because there are no signs of the South Korean government changing its position on the Supreme Court’s ruling [awarding damages to victims of forced labor]. The election just happened to coincide with this. This issue has already become protracted, and further protraction seems unavoidable,” Nishino said.

This viewpoint was shared by a diplomatic source in Tokyo. “One of the issues here is that Japan is fed up with the comfort women issue. No doubt the election had an effect, but you can’t regard this as being entirely about the election,” the source said.

Whereas the South Korean government argues that the Supreme Court’s decision must be respected and that it can’t intervene in decisions by the judicial branch, the Japanese government counters that the Supreme Court’s decision is itself a violation of international law. It’s not easy to bridge such a fundamental gap between the two sides’ position on the issue of forced labor.

This is leading some analysts to think that Japan could take further action after July 18, which is the deadline for South Korea to respond to Japan’s request for asking a third country to participate in an arbitration committee under the two countries’ claims agreement. In fact, Japan has already left open the possibility of openly admitting that it’s taking retaliatory measures. In March, Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said that Japan was considering the option of raising tariffs on South Korean products and banning remittances and visas if the assets of Japanese companies are liquidated.

True intentions will likely be revealed after election

The first indication of Japan’s true intentions and whether this confrontation will drag on will become apparent on August 1, following the House of Councillors election, when the Abe administration decides whether to revise the execution order that governs export trade by removing South Korea from the white list. South Korea’s removal from that list would mean that Japan could theoretically impose restrictions on all products aside from food and lumber. That would likely send the conflict spiraling out of control.

That said, action by the business sector could serve to rein in some of Abe’s most radical impulses. During a press conference on July 8, Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), Japan’s largest economic organization, said it would continue exchange with South Korea’s business sector despite the conflict between the two countries.

“Abe will keep an eye on the impact on South Korean and Japanese businesses; if that impact gets too big, he’ll try to find a way out,” Lee Yeong-chae said.

By Cho Ki-weon, Tokyo correspondent

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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