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No matter how many historical or political issues exist between Japan and South Korea, friendly relations were maintained through economic ties, but such ties were severely harmed when Japan imposed trade restrictions on South Korea in July.
With Tokyo’s economic retaliation against political issues, the postwar bilateral framework has been shaken at its core.
Japan removed South Korea from its “whitelist” of trading partners on grounds that there was “a loss of trust” and “national security concerns,” but Tokyo hasn’t shown any examples to back up such claims.
South Korea has not received such criticism from any other country. Japan ignored the last 15 years of amicable economic ties and unilaterally terminated it.
Historically, Japan exploited the Korean Peninsula during its 35-year colonial rule, making South Korea sensitive to any Japanese aggression. It therefore regards Tokyo’s decision to target semiconductors — vitally important to the nation’s economy — as an assault along the same lines as its colonial rule.
It is also strange that Japan criticizes South Korea for not renewing the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) while at the same time it blames South Korea for “a loss of trust and national security concerns.” At the very least, Japan should put South Korea back on its whitelist.
As a result, South Koreans are angry, with many saying that Japan refuses to repent for its evil history and that Japan is eager to colonize Korea again. They are boycotting Japanese goods and services, and the movement has spread across generations and regions against different sectors, including beer, cosmetics and tourism.
There are three political reasons why Japan imposed trade restrictions and antagonized South Korea.
First, it is a retaliation against wartime forced labor issues.
Last fall, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that individual claims against Japanese companies during the war are still valid, and ordered the companies to pay damages. The Japanese government argued that the 1965 Japan-Korea Basic Treaty and the claims agreement settled the issue.
Following World War II, however, Japan did not deny individual claims could be settled with other countries. When it signed a peace treaty with Washington in 1951 and agreed with Moscow to a joint declaration to solve the issue of claims between countries, Tokyo affirmed the right of Japanese war victims of the atomic bombings and Siberian detention to claim individual damages against the U.S. and the Soviet Union. And after Tokyo established diplomatic relations with China in 1972, Japanese companies eventually paid damages for Chinese wartime forced labor.
The 1965 treaty was signed under American pressure to unite the West during the Cold War. No one in Japan or South Korea thought that the treaty alone would solve the problem of its decadeslong colonial rule.
Japan established the Asian Women’s Fund in 1995 and the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation in 2015 to pay compensation to former “comfort women.” This fact alone means their individual claims are valid.
Although the basic treaty may have solved compensation issues on a nation to nation level, it does not cover compensation for individuals.
If the treaty denies individual claims, it may be illegal and invalid from the standpoint of today’s global human rights law.
This problem highlights the differences between Japan and South Korea regarding the relationship between the state and its people.
Japan insists that issues are resolved once a treaty is signed and the Japanese people always obey its government’s decisions.
On the other hand, if South Korea’s government forges a treaty that does not reflect the people’s will, South Koreans will strongly demand a revision.
For example, in 2008, then-President Lee Myung-bak agreed to a South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement that would have liberalized imports of American beef. South Koreans then held large-scale candlelight protests to prevent the agreement from taking effect.
To make up for the deficiencies of the basic treaty, Japan must recognize the individual’s rights from a humanitarian perspective.
South Korea is trying to protect human rights and human security. Japan, on the other hand, wants to defend outdated international laws that may have been effective during the Cold War but have now become an obsolete form of imperialism that only defends the rights of powerful countries. The international community won’t support Japan, which retaliated economically against South Korea, a country that respects international human rights law.
The second reason why Japan set out to regulate its trade is its frustration from being excluded from the Korean Peninsula peace process.
At the end of June, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe failed to achieve any landmark goals at the G20 summit in Osaka. By contrast, South Korean President Moon Jae-in later had a trilateral meeting with the U.S. and North Korea.
Abe maintains his power by exploiting the “North Korea threat.” Peace on the peninsula was something that was annoying for Abe before the House of Councilors election on July 21. He therefore sought to rally conservative votes through economic retaliation against South Korea.
Finally, the third reason for Japan’s provocation of South Korea stems from Abe’s desire to amend the Constitution. In the election, maintaining a two-thirds supermajority in the House of Councilors was necessary for Abe’s ruling coalition to begin a motion for constitutional amendment.
He failed, but is still keen to change the top law. That’s why Abe is targeting South Korea as a foil for gathering conservatives, including from opposition parties.
As for Moon, he doesn’t have an anti-Japan policy. In fact, he hadn’t even placed any priority on Japan.
What Moon wanted to do was to put the domestic economy and the Korean peace process first and solve the wartime labor issue only through civil cases.
But then came Abe’s assault, and public opinion has united to take a tougher line against Tokyo, and conservatives are afraid to be called “pro-imperialist Japan.”
Abe and Moon, and their clashing political views, will be unable to improve the relationship between Japan and South Korea. The only option for the two governments is to manage the situation so it doesn’t get any worse.
Lee Young-chae is a professor at Keisen University specializing in peace studies.