Explainer: What's behind the latest Japan-South Korea tensions?

Japan and South Korea have entered into a new trade war that may threaten global smartphone supply chains, regional security, and free trade, after Japan announced tariffs on chemicals used to make key tech components manufactured in South Korea. South Koreans have responded with a boycott of Japanese products and brands.

The rift is the result of deteriorating relations over the last two years, with historical issues such as wartime forced labour and sex slavery at the centre. A source of tension for decades, many South Koreans feel Japan never sufficiently atoned for deeds committed during the colonial period from 1910-1945. Meanwhile “Korea fatigue” is on show in Japan, connected to a feeling that South Koreans refuse to move on.

Here are the basics on how the dispute unfolded.

Wartime issues surface again

Japan and South Korea’s historical disagreements resurfaced following South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s 2017 election. His criticism of a 2015 deal between Japan and South Korea to settle the issue of wartime sex slaves, euphemistically called “comfort women,” led to renewed public interest in the subject and speculation he would scrap the deal. Critics of the deal said it failed to engage with victims and that Japan’s expressions of remorse were inadequate. In the end, South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha announced that South Korea would not cancel the deal, but called on Japan to take additional steps to help the women. Japan rejected the suggestion.

Tensions rose again over the issue of Japan’s use of the Rising Sun flag, previously the Imperial Japanese Army flag until 1945 and now the naval ensign. At the 2018 International Fleet Review maritime exercise at Jeju, South Korea asked participating countries to display only national and South Korean flags on vessels. Seoul said many South Koreans viewed the Rising Sun flag as a symbol of imperial aggression. Japan refused the request and decided not to participate in the exercise.

That same month, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled Japanese steelmaker Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp. must pay compensation to four South Koreans for forced labour and unpaid work during World War II. Shortly after, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Limited to pay damages to 28 victims of forced labour or their families. In doing so, the court ruled that the 1965 treaty that re-established diplomatic relations settled government-to-government issues but did not prevent individuals from seeking damages against Japanese companies. Japan maintains that the 1965 agreement settled the issue of compensation. Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono said in an interview with Bloomberg that the court ruling was a “serious challenge” to Japanese-Korean relations.

The South Korean government then announced that it would disband the foundation set up with Japan as part of the 2015 wartimes sex slaves deal to provide financial support to survivors. A resolution passed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party said: “We criticise South Korea’s constant act of violating international vows with utmost outrage.”

Weaponising trade leads to #BoycottJapan

A recent opinion survey found that 74 per cent of Japanese respondents said they do no trust South Korea, the highest level found in the more than 20-year-old survey. 75 per cent of South Korean respondents said that they do not trust Japan.

At the June 2019 G20 Summit in Osaka, Moon and Abe did not take up the opportunity to hold a one-on-one meeting. A few days later, Japan announced restrictions on exports to South Korea of chemicals used to make smartphone displays and chips. Japan cited national security concerns over how South Korea regulates the end use of those chemicals and their potential for military applications. Abe was criticised for the move, given his past championship for free trade, and effort to save the CPTPP after US withdrawal.

In response, #BoycottJapan started trending on South Korean Instagram and other social media. The campaign has resulted in a major backlash against Japanese brands such as Uniqlo and Sony, as well as music, beer, food, and travel. An elderly South Korean man self-immolated in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul, after telling an acquaintance about his father-in-law’s history as a forced labourer for Japan. President Moon said Japan’s controls threatened to “shatter” the two countries’ cooperation. 

The US is also in the spotlight as to how it will respond to the tensions, with the Trump administration appearing hesitant to play mediator. During a visit last week by the US top diplomat to East Asia David Stilwell to Tokyo and Seoul, Stilwell said the US will “do what it can.” US President Donald Trump addressed the rift on Friday, telling reporters “It’s like a full-time job getting involved between Japan and South Korea. … If they need me, I’m there.”

The signs of a reconciliation aren’t good. Diplomatic tensions were on full display this past Friday after Foreign Minister Kono summoned the South Korean ambassador in Tokyo to protest Seoul’s position on a joint arbitration panel to address the issue of wartime labour and called the ambassador “extremely rude.” Meanwhile, some dozen cases involving 70 Japanese companies are pending in South Korean courts, meaning historical issues will continue to impact Japan-South Korea relations.

Main image: Wikimedia Commons

 - Asia Media Centre