AsiaInternational Relations

Is Pride Worth Its Price?

Japan and South Korea Identity Clashes At The Cost Of The Trade War

/ On Flickr by Engdao Wichitpunya

While the US-China trade war has been at the center of international attention, it is not the only ongoing economic power struggle. Over the past few months, Japan and South Korea have clashed, to the point where the current bilateral relationship seems to be at its worst since the diplomatic normalization in 1965. With export restrictions, removal of each other from trade whitelist, and various boycotts, the Japan-South Korea competition signals even greater harm to the international community than the US-China trade war.

From the end of WWII through the Cold War’s polarization, Japan and South Korea have been on the same side as Washington’s key strategic allies. Security threats in the Pacific today, such as the rise of China and Pyongyang’s missile intention, strengthen the need to maintain cooperative relationships between the two neighbors. The reality, however, is the opposite.

On July 1st  2019, Japan unexpectedly imposed export restrictions of fluorinated polyamides, photoresists, and hydrogen fluoride on South Korea; Japan controls 70-90% of the global production of these chemicals. These chemicals are vital for the production of semiconductors, which account for around 20% of South Korean exports. Within a week, Seoul backfired by calling for a public boycott of Japanese products, which resulted in a drastic decrease in the sale of Japanese goods in South Korea. The Japanese car manufacturer Honda saw sales drop by more than 80% the following month compared to the previous year.

In August, the dispute intensified. Japan removed South Korea from its so-called whitelist, a list of its most trusted trading partners, in retaliation Seoul did the same. As a result, the two neighbors had become subjected to stricter export conditions. 

The dispute between South Korea and Japan is no longer contained to trade but has escalated to affect their military relations which can have detrimental effects on the stability of the region.  South Korea announced that it would end the General Security of Military Information Agreement, which enables the two parties to share information on North Korea’s ballistic missile threats. This action does not only weaken their bilateral relationship, but also shakes the stability of the US alliance system in the Pacific.

With all the exorbitant costs and lost benefits in mind, the trade war doesn’t  seem to make a lot of sense. Although the conflict did not begin to escalate until July this year, the reason why the dispute ever took place is rooted in the two countries’ past relationship. In fact, these trade disputes are only the latest set of provocations in a history filled with political tensions between the two states. Thus, it is not only worthwhile but also essential to look into the history of Japananese and South Korean relations in order to understand their recurring conflict.

 In 1910, Imperial Japan seized control over the Korean peninsula, which was then unified. Throughout the colonial period until 1945, Korea suffered through the brutal Japanese regime and fought for its life. Thousands of Korean women were forced to work in Japanese military brothels as sex slaves, known as comfort women, which had left a huge wound in the construction of the Korean identity. Moreover, during the second World War, tens of thousands of men were recruited as soldiers, and millions of Koreans were forced to become laborers for the Japanese army.

Sonyeosang or the Statue of Girl- a memorial symbolizing Korean comfort women facing the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, South Korea/ Flickr

Although WWII has long become history, the memories remain graphic for South Koreans, especially those who lost family members. The trauma has been passed down generations, which has fueled the South Korean perception that there has not been a sufficient apology from Japan. In recent years, the expansion of the Japanese conservative nationalists at home, especially under the Abe administration, has aggravated historical disputes in the Tokyo-Seoul relations.

 In December 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe outraged the Korean public by visiting and paying tribute to Yasukuni Shrine. The temple symbolizes Japan’s aggression as it enshrines WWII class-A war criminals, including wartime Prime Minister General Hideki Tojo. To his defense, the purpose of the visit was “to report to the souls of the war dead on the progress made this year and convey my resolve that people never again suffer the horrors of war,” clarified Prime Minister Abe. However, the action was vastly condemned not only by South Korea but also China and the United States.

Yasukuni Shrine by CLF/ Flickr

The controversy has continued. In October 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Nachi-Fujikoshi, and Nippon Steel, to compensate South Korean survivors and the family of the wartime forced laborers. Japan, however, responded that the case had been settled under the 1965 Basic Treaty, which reestablished and normalized the post-war relations between the two countries. This clash insidiously paved the way to the current trade war.

Both Japan and South Korea are aware of the increasing costs of the trade conflict and have been attempting to solve the issues through negotiations.  In July 2019, Tokyo and Seoul had their first-closed-door working-level meeting on the export restriction of hi-tech materials to South Korea; however, due to disagreements, it failed.  

During the Japanese Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony last month, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nakyon met with Prime Minister Abe to discuss the stitching of bilateral relationships. Both agreed that the current difficulty needs changes. Lee also delivered a personal letter from South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Abe, stating the urgency to resolve the bilateral issues. It seems like the pride might not be worth the expensive price of the trade war at this point.

What’s next for Tokyo and Seoul? The current situation hints towards some improvement, especially compared to their actions and counter-actions over the past few months. However, it cannot promise any concrete improvement between the two neighbors, given that there was no mention of a new meeting planned between Japan and South Korea in President Moon’s letter. This complex and historically loaded issue cannot be solved by tackling only the economy as it entangles sensitive identity issues. Even if the two neighbors manage to mend their economic ties, the unsolved historical tensions can easily trigger new conflicts. Moving past their historical conflicts will not be easy and will require compromise from both sides in order to reach a resolution.

Wichuta Teeratanabodee

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