What is happening between Korea and Japan?


South Korea denounced Japan after Japan’s trade sanctions came into force on August 28, 2019, accusing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of being an “adversary”.

Unfortunately, relations between the two East Asian neighbours, allies of the United States, continue to deteriorate as a result of trade and industrial warfare. South Korea, for its part, has tried to respond to Japanese “sanctions” by showing its willingness to break the existing military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan, known as “GSOMIA”, thus raising Washington’s concern.

Unilateral Japanese decision

On July 1, the Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) said that Japan would impose restrictive measures on three materials needed for the production of semiconductors and display panels: fluorinated polyimide, resistant and hydrogen fluoride. These high-tech materials require prior authorization from the Tokyo government. On August 2, the Japanese government decided to remove Korea from the white list of countries benefiting from full preferential treatment in the Japanese export process. And on August 28, this decision was officially put into effect. But what is the background to these quarrels in the areas of regional security and trade between these two East Asian neighbours?

Why did Japan change its attitude towards Korea?

Geopolitical specialists in Asia point out that the dispute between the two neighbouring countries is not a recent one and that it is related to the horrors of Japan’s colonial past. It dates back to the 1930s and 1940s.

At that time, Japan had large parts of Asia, including the Korean peninsula, where it forced people to work for the Japanese Empire. The best known and most tragic examples of these “slaves” were the so-called “comfort girls”, namely Korean women, but also Chinese and Filipino women who were systematically raped in order to “restore morale” to Japanese soldiers on the battlefield.

In addition, Japan forced local residents to work in various factories to keep its war machine operational. It is the latter who are beginning to claim compensation from South Korean courts. In 2018, South Korea’s highest court ordered Mitsubishi, one of the Japanese companies involved in the forced expatriation of Korean workers to their weapons factories, to pay reparations for the use of slavery in its factories during the Second World War. A few weeks earlier, a similar judgment had already been handed down against other companies in the Archipelago such as Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal.

The Japanese authorities obviously did not like the way things turned out, “preferring to pretend that these war crimes never existed and considering the bilateral agreement concluded in the 1960s between the two countries as the end of any dispute in this area”. It is also recalled that a South Korean appeal was officially made to the former Japanese Emperor, Akihito, in February this year, to apologize for these events.

The fact that South Koreans are now demanding money from Japanese companies and that the South Korean government is letting them do so is therefore not well received in Japan. And that is what would have convinced Tokyo to decide to declare a trade war in Seoul. Japan has even threatened to extend its export restrictions in the future if the South Koreans continue to seek redress.

Japan continues to cite that disputes over forced labour in “wartime” have been fully resolved with the 1965 agreement on compensation for Japanese colonization with the normalization of diplomatic ties between Seoul and Tokyo. The latter also refers to the inadequacy of Korean export controls, accusing him also of having sent these high-tech materials produced in Japan to North Korea, which could use them to produce chemical and nuclear weapons. South Korea immediately denied the possible movement of these materials across the inter-Korean border by asking Japan to show evidence of its charges. But Japan is still not giving a concrete follow-up to this request for a South Korean explanation.

Korea’s position and impact on the world market

Korea has consistently proposed to its neighbour to sit at the negotiating table to defuse this conflict, and on July 12 proposed to involve United Nations security experts in an investigation into Japan’s accusations of a possible transfer of the sensitive materials in question to North Korea and to refer the trade dispute between the two countries to the WTO Council for amicable settlement. Japan, however, refused both proposals.

Japan’s trade embargo against Korean companies thus remains valid. An escalation of the conflict could impact the global supply of microchips and smartphone components.

The global mobile phone market could, therefore, experience an upsurge. It should be noted that, together with other Korean companies such as SK Hynix, the giant Samsung is one of the leading manufacturers of chips, semiconductors and displays. In turn, Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix are important suppliers to other technology giants, including Apple.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in denounced Japan’s “selfish” action (which) will inflict enormous damage on the global economy by disrupting the international supply chain, and urged Japan to reverse its unilateral and unjust measures as soon as possible and engage in dialogue.  This case is to be followed!

TunisianMonitorOnline (Dr Faysal Cherif, Professor-Researcher at the Higher Institute of History of Contemporary Tunisia)

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