By Prof. Inh-hwi Park of Ewha Womans University in Seoul
Relations between South Korea and Japan seem to be at their worst in decades. The tensions are flaring beyond historical awareness and different perspectives; thus, the conflict is now boiling over into an economic confrontation.
The trade war Japan triggered shows two characteristics: imposing restrictions on South Korea-bound export of chemical materials used to produce memory chips and semiconductors, and removing South Korea from Japan’s so-called ‘White List’ of countries that are deemed to have proper control on sensitive items that could have a military application. Despite Japan’s continuous denial, the Tokyo’s trade measures targeting Seoul are considered to have expanded the conflict, which was confined solely to historical disagreement, to economic realm.
Besides, it is widely known that Japan was dissatisfied with President Moon Jae-in for not exercising his influence on South Korean Supreme Court ruling that requires Japanese companies to pay restitution for victims of forced labor during Japan’s occupation of Korea.
The South Korean government expresses deep concern because Seoul-Tokyo relations seem to be at their lowest since South Korea normalized relations with Japan in 1965. Rather than being as an independent diplomatic relation, Korea-Japan relationship is intricately interrelated with other foreign relations that the Korean government is promoting.
First of all, Japan is one of the most important facilitators in the Korean Denuclearization and Peace Process, which is one of the key tasks of the Moon Administration. In addition, stable and peaceful trilateral ties between Japan, Korea, and the United States have critical roles in American policy toward Asia that aims to expand democracy and free economy in Asia-Pacific. Furthermore, close cooperation between Korea and Japan is vital to counter China’s rise and induce China to abide by international norms and rules.
Indeed, Seoul and Tokyo had fundamentally mutually beneficial relationships regardless of diverse issues. The two countries need each other more than any other countries in the world not only in quantifiable exchanges between the two, but also in fields that render invisible benefits. Both countries depend on safe and peaceful sea lane in Asia-Pacific and share common interests in environmental and energy problems. Fraught with animosity and misunderstanding, however, the two neighbors are incapable of leading the future into the right path.
Winning the Upper House election at the end of last July, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan is stressing his willingness to achieve his long-cherished goal of constitutional reform. If the constitutional reform is accomplished, political and institutional position of the Japanese right-wing in domestic politics will be strengthened.
Notwithstanding the mistakes of Japan spreading the historical dispute to a trade war, the Republic of Korea government, denouncing the Abe administration for using trade as a weapon to address historical grievances, is trying to confine the trade war to economic area to avoid the conflict spilling over into the security realm.
Meanwhile, Seoul purportedly decided to leave out terminating the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) from the options. Instead, the government chose to suspend sharing military intelligence with Japan temporarily on the premise that the pact will be kept.
However, with tensions mounting, there is no sign of improvement in the Seoul-Tokyo relations or backing down from the trade dispute. Anti-Japanese sentiment among South Koreans would not easily subside due to the economic retaliation that Japan initiated.
The size of anti-Japanese movement at Gwanghwamun is getting larger and larger. For South Koreans, Tokyo’s export control on Seoul was perplexing because Korea is upholding liberal international economic order (LIEO) and following the guiding principles of LIEO better than any other country in the international community. Therefore, the country was thrown into shock and frustration when Japan imposed the restriction.
The perplexity and frustration will not disappear soon. Furthermore, Korean people’s deep-seated resentments against Japanese will not melt down overnight due to the lingering anger over the historical problems that remain unresolved for a century and the atrocities committed by the Japanese against the Korean people during Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula in 1910 to the end of World War II in 1945.
Nonetheless, the strained relations between Korea and Japan should not be left unattended as they are now. President Moon Jae-in's speech during a ceremony to celebrate the Korean Liberation Day on August 15 is imbued with concern over the recently strained relations with Japan. It is hard to guess, but it could have been difficult for the President to demand his people to face out politically motivated measures of Japan with the recession caused by strained relations between Seoul and Tokyo. President Moon’s conciliatory note toward Japan is deemed to be expressing the hope for diplomatic resolution.
Although frustrating, the two countries need to find a way out. Korea should try to convince Japan that responsibility of a wrongdoer for wrongful acts cannot be selective. Considering any cases in recorded history, offenders were never responsible for only the crimes they chose. It would be better if Japan would broadmindedly give Korea time to seek and find possible solutions to deal with the tensions.
Japan knows better than anyone else about the Korean foreign relations. Japanese leaders should realize that the animosity against Japan will exacerbate if Tokyo sets the target higher and tries to take advantage of difficulties that Korea is currently facing.
Is it possible to reset the relationship between Korea and Japan? It seems possible for Korea and Japan to come to an agreement and start over. However, even if the current dispute is settled, an impetuous attempt to reset the relationship can be precariously close to another calamity. Therefore, we need to focus on leveling the rough ground while taking a breather. As the situations got worse, it is counterproductive to conceal the spat between the two countries.
Also, it might not be a very good idea to prolong the conflict and damage the national economy. For a solution, taking multilateral tracks can be one of the options. We should try to avoid further mistakes. We should try to deal with the issues dispassionately considering all the possibilities. Even if it takes time, Korea and Japan should try to reset their relationship in a future-oriented manner for mutually beneficial interdependence.