Japanese-South Korean Quarrel

In the middle of July another crisis in South Korean-Japanese relations broke out, leaving the local press as of that moment no other choice but to continually focus on that topic. As is often the case, the crisis itself is not so conspicuous outside of the country. Even in Japan it is largely a peripheral matter in the eyes of the public. But for South Korea, the Japanese theme is all the rage and eclipses whatever is related to North Korea, which is getting far less mentioned in the South Korean press.

Another round of endless Japanese-South Korean confrontation began in October 2018, when the Supreme Court of the Republic of Korea ruled that the Korean workers, who had been forcibly mobilized by Japanese companies during WWII, should receive compensation from these companies.

There were at least two reasons why the Japanese were anything but delighted about such news. First of all, the Korean court ruling was like opening Pandora’s Box; if Japan failed to close it, the South Korean demands would be followed by similar pleas from China.

Secondly (and most importantly), the Supreme Court’s position was in direct breach of the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea. Signed back in 1965, the Treaty envisaged that Japan would grant Seoul $300 million in aid and another $500 million in easy loans. The Treaty unequivocally pointed out that these payments put the matter of compensation for the damage Korea sustained during the colonial period to rest once and for all.

Paid out in the 1960s, the $800 million is approximately the equivalent of $6.5 billion nowadays, a huge sum at that time for a poor country like South Korea. The dollars were competently invested and played quite a role in the “Korean economic miracle.” However, the South Korean left-wing nationalists (nationalism in South Korea is an ideology of the leftists rather than the rightists) were certainly not happy with the Treaty right from the moment it was signed, believing that the payments it stipulated were insufficient.

The left-wing nationalists, as represented by President Moon Jae-in’s administration, have been in power since 2017 and are confident that the Japanese should “pay and repent” for their real (or imagined) crimes committed almost one hundred years ago. It is Moon Jae-in’s coming to power that was marked by the said Supreme Court ruling.

Strictly speaking, the Japanese are quite used to Korean nationalists bringing all kinds of charges against them, some of which are justified but others are simply absurd and almost hilarious. But this time around, they nibbled away at the tangible assets, rather than symbolic interests. Besides, Japan itself is a changed place. The Japanese, particularly the younger generation, increasingly wonder why they should be held accountable for something carried out by their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. These sentiments are partly shared by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself. But he is also exploiting them for political purposes.

Moreover, the last few decades have taught everyone that neither repentance nor compensation is the solution to the problem. Even after the 1965 Treaty was signed, the Japanese repeatedly paid additional compensation to certain Korean groups that had suffered the most at the hands of the colonial authorities, while Japanese officials, including the Emperor himself, poured forth public apologies for the colonial past. But the Korean position (or at least that of the Korean nationalists) remained unchanged: Each time, the Japanese apologies were branded as insincere and compensation, insufficient.                 

This is why the Supreme Court ruling has caused much consternation among both the Japanese diplomatic community and the Japanese public. Under the new circumstances, the Japanese decided to do what they had never done before: they would serve up a symmetric reply.

It was announced in July that South Korea would be struck off the list of countries entitled to buy Japanese chemicals – hydrogen fluoride, fluoride polyamides and photoresist materials – needed in the production of semiconductors. These names may sound somewhat exotic for a layperson, but the substances themselves are the lynchpin of the semiconductor and mobile phone industry. South Korea has been purchasing the bulk of these three chemicals from Japan and it would be hard to find any alternative suppliers.

Frankly speaking, this is not exactly a total ban on deliveries, but from now on the South Korean side will have to obtain permission from the relevant Japanese ministries and the procedure may take up to three months. Moreover, it’s not one hundred percent sure that a positive reply would come back.

Interestingly, the Japanese sanctions are arranged in such a way as to make it difficult for South Korea to challenge them, for example, at the WTO, where Seoul intends to file a formal complaint. Dropping Korea from the so-called White List is justified by national security considerations and fears that products manufactured on the basis of Japanese reagents will get into the wrong hands. As admitted by many South Korean experts, it will not be easy to dispute this position.

The Korean reply was easily predictable: the country was swept by a wave of nationalism. A movement to boycott Japanese goods and Japanese retail chains was launched and Moon Jae-in’s slowly but steadily declining popularity ratings rallied again (which was possibly the reason why the entire process had been put into motion). Of course, one can also hear arguments to the effect that South Korea will be hit the hardest by the confrontation, being highly dependent on the production of semiconductors, and that the quarrel should better be soft-pedalled. But these views evoke sharp denunciations.

Generally speaking, there is nothing surprising in these goings-on. Although writers in the Soviet Union often denounced the “aggressive triangle of Seoul-Tokyo-Washington,” the real relations between America’s main allies in East Asia have always left much to be desired. For decades, South Korea and Japan regarded one another as an ill-wisher or even a potential adversary.

Hostility towards Japan, which is so characteristic of the Korean society and Korean policy, is usually explained by the falloff of 35 years of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). But this is true only in part. Suffice it to recall that the population of Taiwan, which was ruled by Japan during the same period, has a largely positive attitude to Japan. A much more important factor is that it is Japan that has been chosen by Korean nationalists as the “evil enemy” whose existence is necessary for national unity.

Although the right conservative forces are generally less hostile towards Japan than the left-wing nationalists, a certain degree of anti-Japanese sentiment is maintained by all South Korean media as well as by the entire education system. Almost all movies and books focusing on the colonial period tell tales of Japanese cruelty and cunning and lament the sufferings (or extoll the heroic resistance) of the Koreans.

Only two colors – black or white, without any half-tones or shades – are allowed in the discussions on these subjects. There are numerous taboos that make a calm discussion devoted to the colonial period impossible. A South Korean researcher or journalist would put their career at much risk if they remind the public too often that the colonial period was marked not only by forced assimilation but also by economic growth, a surge in the average life expectancy, and the establishment of a modern education system.

With the anti-Japanese nationalism constantly in the air, a South Korean politician would always gain additional election race points by demonstrating his readiness to confront Japan.

A significant factor was the feeling of guilt for the colonial past, which, up until recently, prevented the Japanese from replying to Seoul’s reproaches and provocations all too frequently. It was far from always that the Japanese caved in under the pressure put on them but they never (again until recently) struck back. In this regard, they differed from the Chinese, who used to retaliate against any South Korean action that was deemed harmful to Chinese interests.

To simplify matters, we can say that Seoul, based on its experience of the past few decades, was afraid of China and somewhat scared of the United States, but it saw Japan as a sufficiently harmless target. Today, however, this seems to be changing. The protracted post-militarist and post-imperial guilt complex is tapering off, the more so since Japanese diplomacy in the region has gained nothing by accepting the blame and doing penance.

Tokyo’s “new toughness” could make others have more respect for its interests. But a different outcome is possible too: Japan’s attempts to show its teeth will only strengthen the position of those who have been tirelessly ranting on about the “revival of Japanese militarism.”

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.