Since formally establishing a diplomatic and economic relationship in the 1960s, Japan and South Korea, respectively the third and eleventh biggest economies of the world, have always had a tumultuous love-hate relationship. Both enjoyed cooperation in many areas such as politics, economy and even sports (2002 Japan-South Korea World Cup).
Despite these positive developments, both countries are continuing to witness the horrors of the past. These historic political disagreements have always blocked these two “Bigs” of Eastern Asia to have a zero-problem relationship. Among ongoing disputes, those coming from the era of Japanese rule on the Korean Peninsula between 1910 and 1945 emerged as a burden in liaison of the two countries.
The same topics appeared once again, after South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered some Japanese companies to pay compensation for using Koreans as forced labourers during the Second World War. This decision quickly awoke dormant problems and started an escalating economic and political tension between Tokyo and Seoul. Tokyo denied the court ruling, claiming that the dispute was settled with the normalisation treaty in 1965 and asked Seoul to intervene in the matter.
However, South Korean officials ruled out such an interference with the judiciary. After accusing the South Korean government of not stopping the rekindling of such an issue, Japanese officials quickly countered the decision by imposing export restrictions in July 2019. The restrictions were on chemicals which were essential for the production of memory chips, putting South Korea’s key industry into crisis.
Nevertheless, Japanese officials constantly denied that economic measures had anything to do with the court ruling, and reiterated that the decision was motivated by national security concerns. Representatives of both countries later took the issue to WTO and bilateral diplomatic meetings were held but failed to obtain a possible outcome. The issue complicated further after Japan decided to remove South Korea from its “White List,” causing Seoul to lose its status as Japan’s most favoured trade partner. This decision was strongly criticised by South Korean authorities. President Moon Jae-in said that his country won’t be defeated again by Japan, just days before removing Tokyo from its “White List”. The tension was also felt by citizens as nationals from both countries continued to protest one another, boycotting products and reducing travels between the two countries.
The economic sector wasn’t the only area under stress. Repercussions could also be seen in other areas. For example, another key moment of the ongoing dispute emerged when South Korea decided not to renew the General Security of Military Information Agreement, which was seen as a key tool to monitor threats from Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea. The unexpected decision had a snowball effect with the attachment of other remaining non-economic disputes. Among these, the visit of South Korean lawmakers to disputed islets, known as Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in Korean, was denounced as a provocation by Japan. The move increased fears that even other territorial disputes may re-emerge such as Tsushima/Daemado Island controversy or East Sea dispute (Sea of Japan by Tokyo, Korean Eastern Sea by Seoul).
Another disputed action came from Tokyo, when a group of Japanese officials, excluding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and members of his cabinet, paid a visit to Yasukuni Shrine. The visits to the shrine were termed controversial by South Korean authorities as the structure houses some Japanese war criminals. The move was seen as a provocation not only by Seoul but also by Beijing as the move is considered an apology for wartime period. The “Comfort Women Dispute” was also another historic dispute that resurfaced among all the other topics. The debate closed in 2015, with the signing of a compensation agreement by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. Four years later, President Moon Jae-In has reopened the issue as a dispute, seriously damaging previous accords.
As we can see, the ongoing trade wars are just a small part of the much bigger iceberg. We can assume that wartime controversies will most probably be ignited every time another dispute arises between the two countries. Most of the analysts see the current situation as one of the worst points in their history after the 1965 treaty. A situation like this may require an international mediator to intervene to bring back normalization in the region. The most suitable candidate seems to be the United States, due to its historically good diplomatic ties with both nations. However, Washington’s baby steps in resolving the crisis may cause others to be involved in the case; either China or Russia.
There may be several ways to end this crisis but resolving contemporary disagreements, such as trade frictions and the end of the General Security of Military Information Agreement will only serve as temporary fillers due to historical backgrounds. The real path to resolve all conflicts lie in terminating once and for all the disputes before 1965. Recent examples clearly show that whenever a dispute occurs, it will be supported by long-time problems. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-In, need to renew their normalization accord, leaving aside all previous enmities. Such a move will help both countries to expand their foreign policies and will also help the region conclude longstanding problems.