There exist two nations, geographically an inch, but mentally miles apart. Although both resemble in feature, they are in stark contrast when it comes to the way of thinking. Of course, they may share ethnic similarities due to centuries of cross-cultural exchange, but numerous attempts by the Japanese to harass Koreans, such as the Japanese rule of Korea during the early 1900s, have undermined fruitful interaction. Under this love and hate relationship, it has been the task of South Korean diplomacy to balance between nationalist sentiment against Japan and strategic partnership with Japan for national security and economic cooperation. This difficult relationship has recently been shaken even further from the ‘2019 South Korea-Japan conflict,’ making the already stiff relations reach its peak. The UOS Times therefore will look into its background and origins of the problem.
Origins of the Conflict
The ongoing conflict can be attributed to the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling demanding Japanese companies, especially Mitsubishi, compensate for its exploitation of Koreans, such as using forced-labor including the controversial sex slaves, or the so-called “comfort women,” during the Japanese colonial rule of the Korean peninsula in the early 1900s. The respective countries have their own say in regards to this matter.
Deals were indeed reached both in 1965 and in 2015 to settle this matter. From South Korea’s perspective, however, the 1965 Treaty, which established diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan and offered “partial” compensation to South Korea from Japan, was unilaterally agreed upon by the then-Park Chung Hee administration in the face of strong public opposition. Also, they claim that the 2015 “Comfort Women Deal,” which also entitled the comfort women to some degree of financial reparation by Japan, did not represent the will of the actual victims.
On the other hand, Japan views the situation in a completely different way. Japan emphasizes the fact that both the 1965 and the 2015 deal had “officially” settled all matters irreversibly. For example, Japan believes they have already fulfilled its responsibility of its past colonial history by giving a grant to South Korea through the 1965 Treaty. Moreover, Japan had accepted the terms of the 2015 deal to satisfy South Korean demand for the previous deal reached in 1965. According to Japan’s view, the court decision of 2018 was a violation of international law.
Current State of the Conflict
The current ongoing dispute can be viewed in two tracks: political and social:
Politically, the two countries are engaging in a trade war that was sparked from Japan officially removing South Korea from its “white list” of preferred trading partners this August, signaling an end to South Korea’s previously held status that granted preferential economic treatment. This move is speculated to have been a countermeasure to the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling. Therefore, in retaliation, South Korea not only removed Japan from its own white list, but also declared intentions to pull the plug from GSOMIA (General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement), the joint intelligence-sharing military pact reached by the two countries to gather information on irregular activities carried out by North Korea. South Korea, however, reversed this decision on Nov. 23 to extend the intel pact. Diplomatic channels have been quite active, the two sides meeting occasionally to reach terms, but have sadly failed each time.
Socially, Japan tightening its regulations on the export of three key materials to South Korea which serves vital for South Korean companies manufacture semi-conductors and display devices fueled anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea. This provoked South Koreans to take part in a nationwide boycott against Japanese goods and services under the banner of “NO Japan.” It basically ranges from advocating for the use of domestic products or merely canceling trips to Japan to local businesses going as far as to posting signs barring Japanese customers from entering. Statistics show that sales in Japanese products, such as Japanese alcoholic beverages (Asahi and Sapporo), automobiles (Toyota and Honda), and clothing brands (Uniqlo and Muji) have dropped significantly compared to those of last year. Especially in the case of Japanese alcoholic beverages, South Korean imports of Japanese beer plunged approximately 99.5 percent compared to those of last year.
Subsequently, not all are for the anti-Japanese sentiment. Domestic factionalism is inherent in South Korean society when it comes to confronting Japan. While most South Koreans are proponents of issuing a harder line against Japan, some are advocating for flexibility. The former demands a “proper” apology from Japan before any type of cooperation occurs. The latter highlights the opposite, bringing up the issue of national security, such as the threat coming from North Korea. For example, they claim that a schism in South Korea-Japan relations originating from different interpretations in history will have repercussions, such as affecting the U.S.-Korea-Japan trilateral alliance.
Interview with Prof. Ahn Se-hyun
Subsequently, to receive professional feedback on this issue, we interviewed Professor Ahn Se-hyun of the Dept. of International Relations at UOS, who also serves as the Senior Advisor to the National Bureau of Asian Research.
How do you view the ongoing conflict?
It sure is a sensitive issue. Domestic pressure from within when it comes to dealing with relations between the two countries is one factor for the intensifying conflict. However, we should not limit this only to South Korea and Japan. It has more to do with Northeast Asia as a whole. Therefore, we need to look at this matter from diverse angles, keeping in consideration the balance of power theory. Only then will we be able to find a breakthrough.
South Koreans blame the Japanese for such bitter relations.
They certainly do have a point. Shinzo Abe’s Japan has in fact played a role in aggravating such tensions. For example, since the Fukushima Nuclear Incident struck, it has been Abe’s wish to cover up the case by fueling anti-Korean sentiment. Also, he is trying to take advantage of this conflict for re-election. Nevertheless, this does not mean that a working relationship will not be a possibility for the two countries.
Do you think the reconciliation between Germany and Poland is impossible for Korea and Japan?
Not at all. Take a look at the current relationship between Japan and the U.S. Even though they were sworn enemies before, relations have developed into a “strategic” partnership. We can also apply this to Korea and Japan. However, the key is that we need to be more future-oriented and pragmatic, and to leave some space for reconciliation.
Can social interaction overcome political differences?
It is a possibility. However, at the same time, we must keep in mind that everything existing in society is subordinated to the state. However, yes, we should at least try, such as through promoting interaction among the civilian sector, or engaging in student intercultural exchanges.
Is there any advice for the current Ministry of Foreign Affairs?
Honestly speaking, this has nothing to do with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Blue House, especially the president, holds every executive right. Therefore, my advice would be directed at the Blue House, that they should be more far-sighted in terms of handling security matters, especially in regards to the U.S.-Korea-Japan alliance.
In order to find out how a native Japanese living in South Korea would view all this friction, The UOS Times decided to interview one Japanese student from the Humanities Dept. of the University of Seoul (UOS), who asked for anonymity. First off, she said she was indeed familiar with the simple timeline of how and why the scenarios unfolded, but not in detail, since not many Japanese including herself are interested in politics, and thus do not hold any political positions in regards to this incident. One thing though that had caught her attention was that compared to Japan, the entire nation of South Korea reacted fiercely to such political events.
According to her, unlike South Korea, the Japanese currently hold warm feelings toward Koreans and are crazy about South Korean entertainment, fashion, and food. What she believes as the solution therefore to improving South Korea-Japan relations is for the Japanese to show more interest in the two countries’ relations. Since the younger generation in Japan tend to receive a subjective education of history, which does not explicitly cover its colonial era, not only do many Japanese wonder why South Koreans get upset and emotional when dealing with historical issues, but also are prevented from realizing the vast difference in the respective countries’ mentality. Therefore, she said that Japanese people should distance themselves away from what the Japanese government is trying to implant on the minds of the citizens. Hence, if more individual-to-individual cross-interchanges occur, the ice will gradually melt away.
The current ongoing conflict is nothing new. It is merely another among the many scars embedded in the history of South Korea and Japan. Difference in mentality, a troublesome past, and conflicting interpretations act as an obstacle to a working relationship. However, other countries’ cases have proven that cooperation is indeed possible even between once-sworn enemies. For South Korea and Japan, only time can tell. It is therefore up to the respective leadership of both countries to come up with a road-map on how they shall deal with future challenges.