By Max S. Kim*
Japan Confronts South Korea on Suspicious Transactions of Hydrogen Fluoride
A week ago, Japan announced tighter controls on exports of certain high-tech materials to South Korea. The South Korean government and media, responding unusually quickly and hysterically to the announcement, called it an economic reprisal against the Koreans and started fuming about Japan at the national level.
As the dispute spiraled, Japan’s PM Abe clarified the issue, referring specifically to South Korea’s “improper handling” of the hydrogen fluoride (HF) gases imported from Japan, and said Japan had to take necessary steps “for reasons of security and safety.”
Abe’s diplomatic remarks carried clear demands for documented transparency from the South Korean government regarding the domestic transactions of the imported HF gases.
All that South Korea needs to do is to provide Japan with details of where the HF gases have been used, and the matter can be put to rest. Instead, South Korea framed Japan’s cautious measures as an act of “economic retaliation for political gains” and tried to brush the real cause of the dispute under the rug. But that is a grave mistake.
Disappearance of Imported Hydrogen Fluoride Gases
What is the nature of the dispute? HF gases are strategic materials since they are essential for the process of extracting enriched uranium (U235) in centrifuges, and fine-grained U235 (85% or higher) becomes weapons-grade nuclear material.
HF gases are handled in special metal tanks and, as sensitive strategic material, their imports and exports require government approval and transaction records. Japan has every reason to be concerned about the transaction records of HF gases exported to South Korea since Japan lives under direct threats of North Korea’s nuclear missiles.
South Korea’s import of Japanese HF gases sharply rose in 2017 and 2018 after Moon Jae-in took office (e.g. 25,003 tons in 2016 to 32,410 tons in 2017 to 38,339 tons in 2018). Yet, the imported HF gases are mostly unaccounted for, and some of the South Korean trading companies that imported them also disappeared without a trace.
Japan’s remarks on the issue implied that a rogue state, like North Korea or Syria, had access to the materials. Abe will not issue a statement of this magnitude without evidence that backs it. South Korea’s immature response amplifies the suspicions that Mr. Moon was caught with the smoking gun. Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University visited North Korea in 2010 and already saw the Yongbyon nuclear facilities running thousands of centrifuges to extract enriched U235.
In 2017 the US Department of State re-designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. What will become of South Korea if it is proven that Seoul handed HF gases over to Pyongyang?
The Future of Japan-South Korea Relations
Evidently, South Korea drags itself deep into the mud and appears to have no insight about the dynamics of the international relations surrounding the Korean Peninsula. After declaring 2017 as the inaugural year of his successful “socialist revolution” in South Korea and takeover of power, Mr. Moon started off by strengthening ties with North Korea, on one hand, and alienating Japan, on the other hand.
As Moon has not hesitated to invoke political confrontation and even military tension with Japan, the Japan-South Korea relation has become the worst it has been in decades. South Korea’s “improper handling” of imported HF gases came amidst spiraling conflicts between the two nations. This time, Japan looks different and does not appear to let go of it without South Korea paying the price for their misconduct.
As the US-China trade war deepens, the US needs more support from allies, and the role of allies in the region gets ever greater. In May, Japan quietly celebrated the new emperor, and the incumbent “Tenno” officially declared a new epoch for Japan. Although much of the coronation is symbolic, its significance for Japan as a nation should not be underestimated. The advent of a new emperor signifies a new chapter in Japanese history. Japan wants to regain its might, and Abe is now getting the call from the recent paradigm shift in the regional dynamics
Signs of psychological change in Japan are already on the way: The anti-Korean sentiment has risen to a worrisome level not seen since WWII (e.g. Korean-Japanese professors not assigned classes, Korean-Japanese applicants denied bank loans, Korean-Japanese officials demoted or re-assigned to unpopular posts). Racial flames of this sort are hard to control once started, and the domestic sentiment is naturally echoed in the diplomatic relations of the two countries. This, some believe, may lead to a Japan-South Korea trade war that mirrors the ongoing US-China trade war in its essence: an elimination game.
The US position is remarkably calm despite the devastating nature of the dispute surrounding HF gases: It is an issue that “the two nations should resolve through diplomacy,” and “the US will not mediate.” However, the American silence foreshadows their policy for the region in the coming days. It is also possible, as some speculate, that the US first found evidence of illicit supplies of HF gases from Seoul to Pyongyang, then warned Japan about it. If true, that’s even more damaging to South Korea.
How can their broken relations be mended? Unfortunately, the future doesn’t look bright. Moon Jae-in and his cabal are just a bunch of Neanderthals unable to live in the modern time. Moon voided and reversed many of the major agreements with Japan signed by his predecessors and ignited racial tension and national hostility against Japan. What comes next, then, is a natural reaction to his foolish and mindless provocations.
As the first step in repairing their relations with Japan, the South Koreans must remove Moon from power. However, it is a pro-Beijing and pro-Pyongyang faction that has run South Korea for 30 years, and the deep-rooted cabal recruited media moguls, former cabinet members, corporate execs, university presidents, and military brass as members. Thus, the next president will most likely be another member of the cabal or someone tapped by them.
South Korea really needs new leaders committed to bringing the country back from power abuse and abysmal mismanagement.
*Max S. Kim received his PhD in cognitive science from Brandeis University and taught at the University of Washington and the State University of New York at Albany. Besides his own field of profession, he occasionally writes on regional affairs of the East Asia, including the two Koreas.