National / Politics | The Argument: South Korea-Japan relations

Japan-South Korea relations: Where did it all go wrong?

The Argument is a feature dedicated to promoting dialogue and deeper understanding on contentious issues by introducing various viewpoints.

More than half a century has passed since the normalization of Japan-South Korea ties in 1965. Ahead of the 55th anniversary in 2020, the relationship between the two countries has hit rock bottom.

In addition to historical issues, tensions have spilled over into economic and national security matters. As animosity between the two governments grows, friendly ties between the Asian democracies have also taken a hit, with South Korean consumers boycotting Japanese products, and some tourists rethinking their vacation plans.

The two neighbors have had a tumultuous relationship for hundreds of years, but had enjoyed more amicable ties in recent years until the relationship went south last fall.

Last fall, the South Korean Supreme Court made a series of rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate Korean wartime laborers. Tokyo balked at the decisions, arguing that the compensation issue had been settled under the 1965 Japan-Korea Basic Treaty and the claims settlement agreement.

In November, Seoul disbanded the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, which was established under a 2015 bilateral agreement to pay compensation to former “comfort women” who suffered under Japan’s wartime military brothel system. Japan argued that Seoul’s actions violated the agreement and trampled on the spirit of reconciliation.

Then in December, a South Korean destroyer beamed an anti-aircraft radar on a Maritime Self-Defense Force reconnaissance plane, further heightening tensions.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in walks past Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prior to a group photo session at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June. | BLOOMBERG
South Korean President Moon Jae-in walks past Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prior to a group photo session at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June. | BLOOMBERG

Mutual trust has continued to deteriorate.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said he would respect the court’s decision in spite of pleas from Tokyo to honor the 1965 agreement. South Korean National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang, meanwhile, demanded that then-Emperor Akihito personally apologize to comfort women.

Just when the situation seemed to hit rock bottom, things got even messier in July, when Tokyo took measures to strengthen its export controls of key semiconductor materials to South Korea, and later announced its decision to remove its third-largest trading partner from its “whitelist” of countries that get preferential treatment in trade. In response, South Korea pulled out of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).

The international community, including the U.S. government, has watched the deterioration of bilateral relations in disbelief.

With no end in sight, what is at the root of the abysmal relations, and who is the “culprit” of the deep freeze in ties — Tokyo or Seoul?

Is the trust in postwar Japan-South Korea relations gone? Will the tension last? Two experts gave their views for this feature compiled by senior editor Masahiko Fukada.

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