The Ongoing Japan-South Korea Political and Trade Dispute

By Lindsay Wong

Image credit: The Lowy Institute

Japan’s colonization of Korea in the early 20th century paved the way for decades of underlying conflict, which still has reverberations to this day. For decades, Japan and South Korea have disputed over controversial issues like comfort women, forced labor, territory, and more. Currently, the two countries have an ongoing trade and political dispute, leading to each country boycotting products of the other. With neither country backing down, there seems to be no end in sight for this feud. Their complicated history also makes it harder to reach an ultimatum that both countries are satisfied with.

Like many pairs of neighbouring countries, Japan and Korea have fought sporadically since the 7th century. Japan has repeatedly tried to invade Korea – popular culture still depicts this in narratives of movies and dramas. Finally, in 1910, Japan annexed Korea and made them a colony. Under the colonial government, Koreans were forced to assimilate into Japanese society, adopt Japanese names, and speak primarily Japanese. In 1945, Japan’s defeat in World War 2 also brought about the end of Japan’s rule of Korea. As a result of this colonial legacy, the ethnic minority of Zainichi Koreans continue to inhabit Japan while facing discriminatory policies to this day. Koreans do not remember their colonial history fondly and are still hostile, in some cases.

In the 1930s and during World War 2, when Japan had to mobilize for war, they made use of all their resources and Koreans were forced to work in factories or mines and to enlist as soldiers under the Imperial Japanese Army. Tens of thousands of women (not only from Korea but also across Asia) were sent to military brothels to work as comfort women for Japanese soldiers. These victims were subject to harsh circumstances and many survivors suffered long-lasting psychological effects due to their experiences, including trauma. Although Japan apologized in 2015 and paid 1 billion yen in reparations to fund the victims, activists and former comfort women were not completely satisfied with the outcome. The government made it unclear whether the funds would directly be compensated to the victims, who also wanted a more sincere apology and acknowledgement of their crimes.

The Japanese colonial government committed atrocities, particularly forced labor. The political dispute stems from South Korea demanding more appropriate reparations to be paid. Although Japan lost control over Korea in 1945, it took two full decades before former South Korean President Park Chung-hee sought to normalize relations in exchange for loans and grants. The Japanese government stated that the financial help in this 1965 treaty resolved their tensions, but this does not seem to be the case. Several diplomats have stated that it does not “settle all the problems related to [its] colonial past” and takes away individual victims’ autonomy to seek reparations.

In 2018, tensions flared again as South Korea’s top court ordered several Japanese firms to compensate the Koreans they used as forced laborers, including Mitsubishi Heavy, who refused to comply with these orders. Two other firms that were accused had their assets seized in South Korea, forcing them to pause their operations. This controversial issue has angered many South Koreans, who started openly destroying Japanese goods and boycotting their products. In response, the Japanese government continued to state that all reparations had been paid in the 1965 treaty. A year later, it announced that it would remove South Korea’s status as one of their favored trade partners. They also imposed export controls on electronic products, which significantly affects companies like Samsung, SK Hynix and more. The only indication of any signs of improvement in their relations is the fact that South Korea declared it would be continuing its military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan last November.

Japan and South Korea’s complicated history has made it difficult for pre-existing tensions and disputes to be resolved. Despite the establishment of the 1965 treaty and payment of reparations, these attempts to resolve the disputes were to no avail. In recent years, the situation has once again escalated. In order for relations to improve between the two countries, there needs to be a paradigm shift towards the resolution of conflicts and tensions between the leaders.

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