In Depth

What’s behind the enmity between Japan and South Korea?

South Korea has cut intelligence ties with its neighbour after Japan imposed aggressive trade restrictions

After weeks of escalating trade tensions, the rancor between Japan and South Korea reached a new level yesterday, when Seoul announced it would abandon the countries’ military intelligence-sharing pact.

The now-scrapped agreement was signed in 2016, and had been publicly championed by the US - partly as a regional counterweight to Chinese hegemony, and partly as a critical part of international efforts to monitor North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapon activity.

South Korea’s move came in spite of last-minute US attempts to save the deal.

Early yesterday, American envoy Stephen Biegun met South Korean officials, but the announcement came later in the day nevertheless, to much international surprise. “The decision was made after an hours-long debate within the presidential national security council,” reports the Financial Times.

Why are these two lynchpins of western geopolitics at each other's throats?

Trade spat

Seoul’s decision is an act of statecraft in retaliation for Japan’s imposition of export controls on materials and products crucial to South Korea’s technology industry - a sector integral to their economy.

Announced in July but due to take effect on 28 August, the trade restrictions apply to items like ball bearings, precision machinery, and three chemicals crucial to the production of computer chips and screens. On top of this, Japan removed South Korea from a list of “white countries” - nations designated as trusted trade partners, a move that saw Seoul follow suit.

“If Japan intentionally hurts our economy, it will also have to suffer big damage,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in the wake of the news.

Japan’s trade assault caused fury in South Korea. Japanese goods have been boycotted, and, the BBC reports, a man publicly took a metal pole to his Japanese-made Lexus in protest. Thursday’s news shows the anger is shared in government.

A Seoul government statement was clear that Japan’s trade restrictions were the reason for its withdrawal from the intelligence-sharing pact.

Colonial reparations

The bitter resentment between the two nations has a long history. As an aspiring colonial superpower in the early 20th century, Japan annexed Korea in 1910, subjecting millions of its men to slave labour.

Later, during WW2, the Japanese military sent thousands of Korean women to brothels to be raped by its soldiers. Upper estimates put the number of “comfort women”, as they came to be known, at 200,000.

As the BBC reports, “In 1965, 20 years after Japan's defeat and the end of its occupation of the peninsula, South Korean President Park Chung-hee agreed to normalise relations with the country in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and grants. Japan insists this 'economic co-operation' pledge settled any claims for wartime reparations or compensation.”

However, South Korea does not consider the issue settled.

“A South Korean Supreme Court ruling last year allowed Korean victims of forced labor during World War II to seek compensation from Japanese firms,” reports NPR. “South Korea also shut down a Japanese-funded foundation that supported Korean comfort women who were forced into sexual slavery during the war. Both actions incensed the Japanese government.”

Regional and international ramifications

“The relationship between Japan and South Korea is in a very severe situation with the series of extremely negative and irrational moves by South Korea, including the decision this time,” said Taro Kono, Japan’s foreign minister, in a statement. “The Japanese government will continue to urge South Korea to respond sensibly, based on our consistent stand over various issues.”

The New York Times quotes Ankit Panda, an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, who summarises the situation starkly. “I think the two countries can be fairly described as adversaries now. In Seoul, the idea is if we can do something that will hurt Japan more than it will hurt us, then it’s worth doing.”

“We’re going to lose an important source of information-sharing between our two allies at a very dangerous time,” added Mr Panda.

“We are all stronger — and Northeast Asia is safer — when the United States, Japan and Korea work together in solidarity and friendship,” said Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman. “Intel sharing is key to developing our common defence policy and strategy.”

The Financial Times quotes Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. “The Moon government may see this decision as domestically popular and as a symbolic, low-cost way of signalling resolve to Tokyo. However, this move will raise international concerns that Seoul misreads the regional security situation and is presently unwilling to shoulder its responsibility for improving Korea-Japan relations.”

The FT continues, “Prof Easley also warned that South Korea’s decision might be viewed by Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow as it being less committed to its alliance with the US, exposing it to greater regional friction.”

Writing in the New Statesman, Nicky Woolf asked Brett Bruen, the president of consulting firm Global Situation Room, for his analysis of the situation. “The Trump administration does not have an Asia strategy,” said Bruen. “They have abandoned American leadership in the region… Without question the unprecedented level of escalation in the traditional spat between Seoul and Tokyo is due directly to the phenomena of our entry into the post-American era. Washington is no longer playing referee.”

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