Japan vs South Korea

Japan vs South Korea

The History Strikes Back

12/2019  | Reading time: 5 minutes

A decision by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), which entered into force on 4 July 2019, requires exporting companies to apply for an export licence at the Ministry in case of three chemical agents: fluorinated polyamides, photoresists, and hydrogen fluoride. With this decision, the Japanese government, which classifies its trading partners into four groups from A to D, “downgraded” South Korea from Group A to B. This move means that, besides the chemical agents mentioned, companies must apply for a licence to export any product (e.g., carbon fibres, machine tools) that can be used for military purposes. The government argued that these “sensitive” materials could cross the border between the two Koreas, and, in the north, they could be used for weapon production. That could pose a serious national security risk for Japan, against which preventative actions had to be taken. However, in my view, a more decisive factor was the unsettled past of the two countries and Abe Shinzō’s domestic political interests.

Historical Grievances

According to the Japanese government, the recent decision on export control measures did not come as retaliation for a ruling by the Supreme Court of South Korea on a case of forced labourers. However, South Korea is connecting the two. The tension goes back to the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937) and the Pacific War. When workforce in arms factories began to decline, Japan started to draw on Korean forced labour, passing the National Mobilisation Law. Koreans were not only employed in factories but also in Japanese coal mines and infrastructure-building in other Asian territories, e.g., in Manchukuo. Later, under the National Service Draft Ordinance, they also sought to make up for the shortage of soldiers on the front with Koreans. The victims were either forcibly transported to Japan or lured with deceptive offers into the country: they were promised to be able to return to their homeland after receiving their wages.

Korean workers were kept under terrible conditions. It was common to force them to work overtime, while the quality and quantity of food were inadequate, and accommodations were dirty and overcrowded. The official position of the Japanese government is that there were a total of 226,000 forced labourers in the country in 299 companies. Korean NGOs and historians, however, think that this figure is much higher.


Korean volunteers in the files of the Imperial Japanese Army
Source: Wikimedia (日本語: 朝日新聞社「朝日歴史写真ライブラリー 戦争と庶民1940-1949 第2巻」より。), licence: public domain

South Korea’s Supreme Court passed a verdict in 2018 against two such Japanese companies, stirring up renewed tensions between Japan and South Korea. There were two verdicts on forced labour cases already in 2013. One was delivered by the Busan High Court, which ruled that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries must pay 80 million won as compensation to each victim, while the other by the Seoul High Court, also ordering Nippon Steel & Sumimoto to pay 100 million won to each victim. The Supreme Court confirmed the judgments in 2018. Prime Minister Abe Shinzō regards the decision incompatible with international law and its implementation “impossible.”

According to the Japanese position, the issue of compensation was settled in the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations. Under the agreement, the Japanese state provided USD 500 million in economic aid and USD 300 million in private loans to South Korea. This amount of USD 800 million is about one-third of the total sum of compensation paid to Asian countries. Japan has never explicitly provided compensation to those persons who have suffered war crimes, and the leadership argues that this is not necessary, . Furthermore, so the argument goes, according to the Annex II of the Treaty, the parties agreed that all claims of the South Korean State and its nationals were settled “completely and finally.” As Suga Yoshihide, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, , “our country’s position is consistent and will not change.”

However, the South Korean position is different on this issue. According to the verdict by the Supreme Court, the Treaty of 1965 did not nullify the right of individuals to claim compensation, as Section IV of the Treaty of San Francisco only settled financial and civil debts. In addition, there has been criticism over the effectiveness of the economic aid, claiming that it has actually strengthened Japanese export companies rather than the economies of the recipient countries. For all these reasons, albeit valid based on international law, the Treaty can be questioned on the grounds of the lack of political legitimacy—at least, from the Korean side’s point of view.

Another source of tension between the two states is the issue of “comfort women” (慰安婦, ianfu). In 1937, Japanese military expansion reached Nanjing, where the Japanese Imperial Army slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese people in six weeks. The number of women raped by soldiers is estimated to be between 20,000 and 80,000. Although the first comfort station (慰安所, ianjo) was established in Shanghai in 1932, the Nanjing incident only reinforced the military leadership’s belief that they needed to build an extensive brothel network to prevent further rape and a decline in morale among soldiers. To this end, masses of women and young girls from the occupied Asian countries, including South Korea, were deported and forced into prostitution.

Although the Japanese government thinks that this issue was also settled under the 1965 Treaty, several leading politicians have acknowledged Japan’s guilt and have expressed deep regret for the victims (see the Murayama Statement or the Kōno Statement). In 1995, the government decided to set up a private fund (Asian Women’s Fund, AWF) to collect donations from the public to pay compensation to former comfort women. The Korean side criticised the establishment of the fund, saying that it was just a cheap substitution of the compensation the Japanese government should pay directly to erstwhile comfort women. This rationale has its flaws, however, as the government was financially responsible for the operation of the fund and granted several hundred million yen for its operating budget each year. In the end, the AWF turned out to be an unsuccessful project and dissolved in 2007.

In 2011, the Constitutional Court of Korea declared it unconstitutional that the government would not take any significant step to resolve the compensation issue, thus violating the fundamental rights of the former comfort women. Finally, in 2015, on the 50ᵗʰ anniversary of the diplomatic normalisation between the two countries, an agreement was reached by Abe Shinzō and Park Geun-hye as a result of constitutional court decisions and lengthy negotiations. Abe expressed his heartfelt apology, and the Japanese government paid one billion yen to the Korean government’s comfort women foundation. In return, Japan expected the Korean side to remove the statue of a young comfort woman which stands in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul. However, that did not happen because the statue had been set up by an NGO, so the government argued that it had no authority over its removal.


The statue of the comfort women before the Japanese embassy in Seoul
Source: KoreaKHW/Shutterstock

Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye was also a problematic point in the deal. After the agreement, she was involved in a corruption scandal, and, as a consequence, she resigned in 2016 and was sentenced to twenty-four years in prison in 2018. Her wrongdoing undermined the Treaty’s legitimacy, especially because President Moon Jae-in, elected in 2017, was also in favour of revisiting it. He said the majority of Koreans were emotionally opposed to the deal, as confirmed by a poll in December 2016. It turned out that 53.7% of the 1,000 respondents believed that the Treaty should be considered null, and only 35.6% supported it. The victims of forced prostitution did not accept the Treaty either, since they—and the civil society organisations representing them—were completely excluded from negotiations between the governments. The Treaty also failed to settle the issue of Japanese history textbooks’ keeping quiet about war crimes.

The final nail in the Treaty’s coffin was a decision by the South Korean government about the dissolution of the Reconciliation and Healing Foundation, which accepted and distributed donations made by the Japanese government to the victims. Abe condemned the move. In his statement, he said that the Treaty had been intended to settle the issue of comfort women “finally and irreversibly.” He added that relations between states did not work if international agreements are not kept.

Moved by domestic policy

So far, bilateral economic relations have not been significantly affected by diplomatic and political clashes. Trade disputes between the two countries were pursued articulating rational economic interests through the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism. The decision in question, however, was driven more by the logic of domestic politics than that of the economic, foreign, or even the referred security policy. The introduction of stricter export controls can also be seen as an attempt to mobilise the electorate, since the decision also had popular support. According to a government survey, 95% of the 40,666 respondents were in favour of removing South Korea from the list of foreign trade preferences. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), although not organised around a well-defined ideology, is clearly a conservative–nationalist party on the right side of the Japanese party system. Abe’s decision favoured the party’s hardliner base voters, among whom historical revisionism and anti-Korean sentiments are the norm.

One of the cornerstones of Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s policy—which was also laid down in a book called Towards a Beautiful Country (美 し い 国 へ, Utsukushii kuni e) that he had written in 2006, shortly before he became Prime Minister for the first time—is that he set out to regain the trust of the Japanese people in the state after World War II, the burst of the economic bubble, and the Lost Decade and restore national pride. However, there are obstacles to regaining national pride when South Korea constantly reminds the Japanese and the international public of the war crimes committed by the country during World War II. The verdicts of the Supreme Court and the “disregard” for the 2015 Treaty suggest to the Japanese political elite that South Korea is obsessed with the past, and, as the past cannot be changed, the resolution of the dispute will continue to run into a stone wall.

It is not surprising, therefore, that, because of his conflict-taking personality, Abe let go of the “apology diplomacy” and took such a step. But the LDP’s nationalism and revisionism remind the South Korean people of the traumas they suffered during the years of Japanese aggression. The question is whether the two states will ever be able to deal with the ghosts of the recurring past for the sake of a “future-oriented partnership.” In the light of so many unsuccessful attempts at resolution and the handling of the case of export regulation, I do not consider such a compromise to be likely.

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