Why South Korea and Japan fight so much about trade

South Korean President Moon Jae-in speaks during a news conference at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea (Photo: Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji).

Author: Jung H Pak, Brookings

The tit-for-tat trade battle between South Korea and Japan is yet to hit rock bottom, setting off alarm bells among observers of Northeast Asian politics about the fraying relationship between two of the world’s most dynamic democracies. In response to Tokyo’s removal of South Korea from its list of favoured trading partners, citing alleged security concerns, Seoul made a reciprocal move in September 2019. In August, Seoul also announced its decision to scrap the 2016 military intelligence sharing agreement, garnering rare open criticism from US officials.

These events demonstrate that the toxicity of a long-running historical dispute has seeped into the security and economic realms. Bilateral ties between the two countries are shadowed by the legacy of Japan’s brutal colonisation of the Korean Peninsula and conscription of sex slaves and wartime labour. Seoul accuses Tokyo of not properly atoning for its wrongdoings, while Tokyo claims South Korea keeps moving the goalposts in spite of many expressions of contrition from Japanese leaders.

Tokyo’s recent action was triggered by the South Korean Supreme Court’s order to seize certain Japanese companies’ assets to compensate Koreans who claimed they were forced into labour during World War II. To justify the export curbs, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said ‘with regard to the wartime-labourers issues, it has become clear that South Korea does not abide by international commitments. It is natural to assume that it also fails to keep promises on export control’.

Experts are pointing fingers at the Trump administration, whether for its disinterest in getting involved or for providing a model for Japan’s wielding of economic cudgels as …continue reading