|Sales of imported Japanese beers have dropped drastically following Tokyo's retaliatory trade action. Yonhap|
By Oh Young-jin
Moon faces growing pressure from Samsung Electronics, the world's largest chip maker for which Japanese technology is pivotal for production, and other industrialists who fear a greater impact if Tokyo increases sanctions.
Several opinion leaders fault Moon for what they argue is his ham-fisted handling of the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling that ordered Japanese firms to pay compensation to Koreans who were mobilized for materiel production during the Second World War.
Moon could succumb to these pressures but only at the risk of turning his regime into a political zombie. And history shows the more he stands pat, the greater the chance the nation rallies around him.
The issues with Japan ― compensation for forced laborers and comfort women, or sex slaves, under Japan's imperial army ― are integral to the Moon regime's foundation ― the liquidation of past ills.
This purge campaign primarily targets the past two conservative regimes led by Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye with fervor exceeding George W. Bush's ABC (anything but Clinton) and Donald Trump's "de-Obamazation."
Moon has made clear that the campaign's purpose is to set history straight once and for all, tackling in a broad stroke all the wrongs that took place during Japan's 45-year occupation and liberation from it in the lead-up to the nation's foundation.
As the part of the clean-up effort, the Korea-Japan December 2015 agreement on comfort women during the Park administration has been gutted and made ineffective.
The Moon administration sat idly when a move started to seize the assets of Japanese firms when they refused to compensate forced-labor victims, as ordered by the court.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose grandfather was a member of the Tojo war cabinet and spared from extreme punishment following the war, has grabbed the chance to raise the issue of trust and press the Moon government into a corner with the trade embargo.
Moon has warned Japan to stop provocative acts, preparing for a dragged-out standoff, placating the industrialists, sending his emissary to the United States for mediation and feeling out the possibility of a negotiated solution.
The chance is that Moon will not and cannot reverse the course so dramatically. If he did, his progressive supporters would take it as an act of betrayal and turn their back on him.
Moon learned a lesson the hard way when he worked for his mentor and friend, the late President Roh Moo-hyun. Roh alienated his support base by pushing for the free trade agreement with the U.S., long considered part of the conservative agenda.
|Members of civic groups protest in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul over its trade sanctions. Yonhap|
Roh never recovered from it, giving Lee Myung-bak a landslide victory to succeed him, despite Lee's flawed character and suspicions about his integrity.
But Moon's hard-line approach also has come with some political dividends.
Hwang Kyo-ahn, leader of the gadfly Liberty Korea Party, the main conservative opposition, volunteered a truce with Moon, arguing it was not because any of his grievances with the President were settled but because Japan's provocations required him to stand behind the leader.
Hwang knows the explosive potential of Japan-related issues, which could make or break his political ambition.
Moon knows that anyone who moves away from a united front would risk being seen as collaborator or traitor and cast off.
Lee Myung-bak made a presidential trip to Dokdo, Korea's easternmost islets that Japan lays claim to, to escape his political plight, virtually forsaking Japanese diplomacy. Park Geun-hye warmed ties with China to make up for the frosty relationship with Tokyo.
If the standoff with Japan, the chance is that fewer detractors will stand up to Moon, which means there would be a lower chance of an early settlement.
Koreans on Japan and China
I am often asked by foreigners why Korea is easily provoked by Japan while being more tolerant of China. For instance, China has retaliated against Korea for allowing the U.S. to station its anti-missile Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles on its soil.
Beijing stopped sending tourists to Korea and put pressure on Korean firms in China, having some pack up and leave for home. But there has been little public show of indignation. The sentiment is more of a concern than resentment shown on the fly to Japan for a slight provocation.
I would say it is related to the unhappy memories of Japan's occupation at the turn of the 20th century. But then, the Chinese supported North Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War that killed or maimed millions of Koreans. And it also has been a key supporter keeping the North afloat since, standing in the way of unification.
Another possible explanation is that Korea had long served as a midpoint transmitting advanced culture from China to Japan, an experience that induced its people to look down on Japan. Japan used to pay tribute to Korea. Maybe that piece of history is affecting Koreans' collective consciousness.