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A mutual enemy ought to bring old adversaries together. When the joint foe is a nuclear-armed autocrat, that’s especially true. But Kim Jong-un’s atomic appetite has done little to unite the two regional powers most immediately threatened – South Korea and Japan. Short of pooling efforts to contain Pyongyang, Seoul and Tokyo are embroiled in an increasingly bitter dispute over trade, security, and chronic historical grievances.

Months of mounting tensions came to a head in July, when Japan imposed stringent export restrictions on materials destined for South Korea. Outraged, Seoul put together a list of countries that do not abide by internationally accepted commercial standards, placing Japan at the very top. Seeking to escalate the tit-for-tat trade war, Tokyo then removed South Korea from its index of commerce partners, implying that exported components may reach the totalitarian North, posing a military threat. As if to confirm the trade spat’s mutation into a security showdown, Seoul then upped the ante even further, terminating an intelligence-sharing agreement and conducting military exercises near two disputed islands.

The flare-up can be traced back to a court ruling late last year, when South Korean judges ordered Japanese companies to compensate victims of wartime forced labour. The move caused consternation in Tokyo, where many deem the two nations’ ugly history settled. Annexed in the early 1900s, Korea was a Japanese colony until the Empire’s defeat in 1945. The peninsula’s population fared particularly poorly during WWII, with much of today’s scrutiny on the issue of ‘comfort women’ – tens-of-thousands of Korean females forced into sexual slavery at Japan’s behest. 

A 1965 treaty looked to settle scores with diplomatic and financial concessions, and a second accord in 2015 formalised Tokyo’s apology for its wartime conduct. “We should not drag this problem into the next generation,” said Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose grandfather was indicted (though never tried) for war crimes. But South Korean activists have long dismissed the settlement, arguing that they were not consulted in its formulation. Recognising this discontent, President Moon Jae-in has, since his election in 2017, pushed for its revision.

Both the South Korean leader and his Tokyo counterpart are guilty of whipping up fervour around the grievances. Abe’s unapologetic stance has engendered a mood of exasperation in Japan, with many perceiving Seoul as intransigent on the past. Old tropes of ‘untrustworthy’ and ‘faithless’ Koreans abound in right-wing circles, observers say. Discontent is perhaps more obvious in South Korea, however. A full two-thirds of citizens say they support an ongoing boycott of Tokyo’s products, which has seen the recent collapse of Japanese beer, clothing and car sales on the peninsula. 

Those fanning the flames are, as is often the case, more interested in domestic agendas than foreign relations. Prime Minister Abe is keen to please his ultranationalist base, and seems willing to borrow from the Donald Trump playbook in doing so. Raising tariffs and imposing trade restrictions make dubious economic sense, but they resonate with the nationalist thread running through Japanese society. For his part, Moon Jae-in is borrowing heavily from a time-honoured South Korean political strategy – when times are hard, act tough on Tokyo. 

And times are certainly hard. The president came into office on a promise of tackling high youth unemployment and stagnant salaries. But an increase to the minimum wage backfired, forcing many smaller businesses to shed staff or close entirely. Worse still, Moon Jae-in’s much heralded policy of rapprochement with his menacing northern neighbour has stalled. He basked in the glory of bringing President Trump and Chairman Kim to the negotiating table, but as hopes of agreement have faded, so too has the South Korean leader’s popularity.

Stoking tensions with Tokyo may offer him political cover, but it’s a risky strategy. South Korea’s goliath tech industry is dependent on Japanese suppliers for critical components. Some 90% of ‘fluorinated polyimide’ – a key ingredient in the manufacture of television screens – originates in Japan, for instance. With the likes of Samsung and LG warning that tariffs could have a material effect on their bottom-lines, South Korea’s fragile economy is likely to slow further.  

Perhaps worse than the financial hit, the spat could mark an enduring erosion of faith between the two nations, experts say.  “It will be difficult for either country to recover from the trust they lost due to their recent actions,” said Jung H. Pak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies. “Even if Moon and Abe temporarily reconcile, grievances and underlying tensions undoubtedly will resurface. But to mitigate the impact of these all-too-frequent flare-ups, so easily manipulated by opportunistic politicians, both countries must focus on their shared interests”.

With the immediacy of the North Korean threat, security is high on the list of these shared interests. Thankfully, despite Seoul’s rejection of its intelligence-sharing pact with Tokyo, a trilateral agreement with the US should ensure cooperation continues. But it’s a worrying direction of travel, and one President Trump, preoccupied with Iran, China and re-election, has brazenly refused to remedy. He above all other world leaders can bring Japan and South Korea back together. If he doesn’t, there’s only one winner – Mr Kim atop his atomic arsenal. 

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