These days Japanese beer is scarce in Seoul. Few Korean tourists travel to Tokyo. Exports on both sides are falling. South Korea has removed Japan from its White list of preferred trading partners, as the neighboring country did two months ago. The dispute of historical roots and modern reasons that drag these two allies has left bilateral relations at their lowest moment in decades. But it shows no signs of abating, and threatens to have global economic and security consequences.
The relationship between the two partners has never been easy. Territorial disputes arise and, from the time of Japanese colonization (1910-1945), the wounds of war. In general, these problems tend to be experienced with greater intensity when nationalist or progressive presidents have governed South Korea, and with less tension when conservative leaders have ruled.
The treaty to reestablish bilateral relations was signed in 1965, under the dictator Park Chung-hee. His daughter, President Park Geun-hye (2013-2017), concerned about the North Korean nuclear program, promoted a rapprochement with Japan. As a result, the two countries signed an agreement in 2015 to resolve one of the great pending issues of the war: that of former sex slaves forced to work in the brothels of Japanese troops, euphemistically known as “comfort women.” —This was the term that both countries used in the document, which South Korea has effectively annulled since last year by canceling the foundation in charge of applying it—. In 2016, the two signed a pact to exchange intelligence information on North Korea, known by its acronym Gsomia.
The trigger for the current dispute came last October, hand in hand with the wounds of history. Specifically, the compensation demands for victims of forced labor during the colonial era, 7.8 million people according to South Korean estimates. A Supreme Court ruling opened the way for individual plaintiffs to obtain compensation from Japanese companies. Japan was furious. In his opinion, the matter had been settled with the 1965 treaty, for which Tokyo paid 500 million dollars in aid and credits. A hefty sum at that time for the host country, whose annual GDP at that time was $ 3.1 billion. Many in South Korea, however, had been dissatisfied: little of that money ever made it into the pockets of the victims.
To the exhortations of the Government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo so that the sentence was not applied and property of Japanese companies in the neighboring country would not be seized, the Executive of the progressive Moon Jae-in – a former lawyer specializing in human rights— He replied that he could not intervene in a judicial decision.
Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse. In July, Tokyo excluded Seoul from its White list of preferred trading partners and cited national security reasons for limiting South Korean access to three types of chemical agents needed to make memory chips. All a blow to the economic waterline of South Korea: it produces 60% of the world of these semiconductors, which represent its main export.
The list of measures and countermeasures is getting longer and longer and covering more and more areas. South Korea has sued Japan before the World Trade Organization (WTO) over restrictions on chemicals. Last week he also kicked Tokyo out of its own White list, with similar arguments about the need to increase control of its strategic exports and ensuring that it is not a retaliation.
Two weeks ago, the controversy extended to sports. Seoul formally asked the International Olympic Committee to ban the Japanese flag of the Rising Sun at the 2020 Tokyo Games. For South Korea – and other Asian countries—, the emblem of the 16 rays is a reminder of the Japanese occupation, in its case between 1910 and 1945. Tokyo 2020 has alleged, in a statement, that the banner —that is still used by the Japanese Navy, and that in Japan is used as a traditional symbol and good luck— “It is not considered a political statement, so it is not perceived as something prohibited.”
The dispute has affected the prejudices that one country maintains over the other. If in South Korea the wounds of the war are still very open and the conservative government of Shinzo Abe is viewed with suspicion, in the diplomatic corridors of Japan there is allusion to a “fatigue towards South Korea.” “They consider that Seoul is not making enough efforts to put the historical disputes behind and start looking ahead,” explains Céline Pajon, a researcher on Japan at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
The tensions have begun to affect daily life. In Seoul it is difficult to find someone who wants to drink Japanese beer. The one that was the second most popular behind the national one has plummeted 97% in its sales. Car sales have also declined. South Korean tourist visits, the most abundant in Japan only behind those of Chinese tourists, have fallen 48%, according to official figures in Tokyo. Japanese exports to its neighbor, which last year reached 55,000 million dollars, have fallen by 9% year-on-year. Those of organic chemical products, almost double, 17%. Business leaders from both countries have launched a call for a speedy diplomatic resolution of the conflict.
All in all, the conversations are not broken. Japan has agreed to discuss the lawsuit with South Korea at the WTO. Contacts between the Foreign Ministries persist. This Thursday, the new head of Japanese diplomacy, Toshimitsu Motegi, and his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, met on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York, although without making progress, as reported by the Yonhap agency.
If the disagreement between the two partners has the potential to affect global production chains – the business world and, in particular, the technology sector await the outcome of the dispute with bated breath—, it also has an impact on security.
In August, South Korea announced that it will not renew its 2016 intelligence-sharing pact on North Korea, “a very strong political gesture of protest and distrust of Tokyo,” Pajon said. The end of Gsomia, says the expert, “does not undermine the basis of security cooperation, as it has never been optimally applied. In addition, the two countries maintain an agreement to exchange information through their US ally ”. But yes, he emphasizes, “the distancing between Japan and South Korea can be interpreted as a sign of a broader dynamic of the decoupling in the region, where Seoul is closest to Beijing ”.
Professor Stephen Nagy, from the International Christian University in Tokyo and the Asia Pacific Foundation in Canada, points out that “South Korea’s refusal to renew the Gsomia is already being tested by China, Russia and North Korea.” This expert cites the Russian overflights of airspace claimed by both the South and Japan. “The recent North Korean missile test streak also tests whether Japan and South Korea will prioritize their joint security interests over targeting so many politicians,” he adds.
A factor that adds to the concern about the state of the bilateral relationship is “the lack of any kind of political will from the United States to mediate. [El presidente de EE UU, Donald] Trump is not interested in managing the alliance, and if no one in the United States Administration is willing to intervene so that both parties come to their senses, it is likely that the relationship will continue to suffer, ”says Pajon.
M. V. L.
The train that transports passengers from Incheon Airport to Seoul used to display tourist advertising from various South Korean regions on its screens. These days, what travelers see is a 20-minute video insisting in Korean, English and Japanese that the Dokdo archipelago belongs to South Korea.
The dispute over the sovereignty of the chain of islets, known as Takeshima in Japanese and which is at a similar distance from Japan and South Korea, lasts about three centuries. After the end of the Japanese colonization, in 1945, it came under South Korean control. An agreement has never been reached, and the two countries insist that it is an inalienable part of their territory.
This year, as tensions have grown, the force of the claim has increased. In August, the South Korean Armed Forces carried out military exercises around the islets, involving warships and planes. This month, half a dozen legislators traveled to the island. Then, the Foreign Ministry in Japan declared that such visits “cannot be accepted and is extremely regrettable, given that Takeshima is an inherent part of Japanese territory in light of historical facts and international laws.”
Although the nationalist claim does not seem to be only a matter of the Government: this year, South Korean visits to the chain of islets has grown by 30% compared to last year’s figures. More than 170,000 people have come there.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.