Deepening divisions

Strained relations between Japan and South Korea are affecting trade, diplomacy and regional security. Old resentments flared up after a South Korean court ruled in favour of compensation for citizens who worked for Japan during the period of occupation and, as Duncan Bartlett reports, the political gulf is widening

World War Two remains on the minds of some South Koreans and their unhappy memories are reflected in the signs which have recently been erected in the business districts of major cities.

The notices, written in Korean and English, urge the boycott of what are termed Japanese ‘war criminal companies’ – firms with historical links to organisations that operated in Korea more than 70 years ago. Some of the companies are purported to have forced civilians to work for them during a period of occupation.

In the city of Busan, stickers have been attached to some Japanese goods stating ‘Product of a war crime company’. Among the targets are fans made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, manufacturer of the systems which cool millions of buildings across Asia.

Irritation and offence

The Japanese government insists the South Korean scheme is irrational and offensive because all matters relating to the use of Korean labour before and during the Second World War were settled decades ago.

Indeed, Japan maintains that in 1965, after 14 years of negotiations, claims were dealt with by an agreement which saw Japan offer South Korea grants and loans worth around $500 million. So far as Tokyo is concerned, that was the end of the matter.

However, the issue returned to the agenda last year when the South Korean Supreme Court made a series of judgments against Japanese companies – including Nippon Steel – ordering them to pay compensation to former workers. President Moon Jae-in indicated that he supported the court’s rulings.

Rule of law

Officials representing the South Korean government say it is entirely appropriate that their leaders back the court. ‘South Korea is a democracy,’ they say, ‘and one of the principles of democracy is that politicians should honour the wishes of the people, as expressed through the legitimate legal workings of the courts.’

They believe that one of the key reasons that the previous president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached was a lack of respect for the courts. She is now serving a 24-year prison sentence.

Separate systems

Yet this appeal to the legitimacy of the courts has little impact on Japan, where the political and legal systems are distinctly different from those in South Korea.

Taro Kono, Japan’s former Foreign Minister
Taro Kono, Japan’s former Foreign Minister

‘In effect, after more than fifty years, South Korea has unilaterally abrogated the pledges made by our governments. If an international agreement can be broken because of the domestic circumstances of one country, we will never be able to maintain stable international relations,’Japan’s former Foreign Minister Taro Kono told Bloomberg.

In September, Mr Kono was moved in a cabinet reshuffle to the position of defence minister, suggesting that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends to continue taking a strong line on the issue.

Intense mood

June Park, a political economist, notes that in Seoul, emotions run high. ‘Every day when I pass by the courts,’ she observes,‘there are demonstrations about contentious issues – some of them quiet, some of them very noisy.But what’s not really discussed here is how independent the judicial branch of government should actually be from the president.’

Dr Park’s view is that in general, the rulings of the courts align with the views of the sitting president, who appoints senior judges. ‘Under the previous administration of Park Geun-hye there was a very different approach when it came to Japan and the war crimes issue. The judges tried to prevent the matter reaching a level that it would upset the Japanese side.

Japan has restricted exports to South Korea of materials used in the manufacture of smartphones

‘As a South Korean citizen, I recognise that historical issues have caused grief and this remains in people’s hearts,’ says Dr Park, who is based at the National Library in Seoul.‘But people in Korea are now bashing Japan and the Japanese seem taken aback. I think the current administration is trying to play the nationalist card and encourage people to rally around the flag ahead of the general election which is due to take place in May next year. So, whoever sits in the president’s seat has a great deal of leeway when it comes to the judicial rulings.’

Trade war

The fallout from the trade dispute has led to a burgeoning trade war. Japan has restricted exports to South Korea of some materials which are used in the manufacture of smartphones and South Korea has taken some retaliatory action against Japan.

There are also implications for the way the two countries collaborate militarily. Both Japan and South Korea are allies of the United States and see North Korea as an ongoing threat. However, South Korea has decided not to continue sharing key intelligence data with Japan, a move which has dismayed the Americans.

The tension with South Korea seems to have emboldened Prime Minister Abe to take further steps towards his long held ambition to reform the constitution. He is pressing for a rewrite of the clause on defence, effectively enabling Japan to maintain an international army.

The South Koreans have frequently expressed their opposition to this move, warning that Japan could once again threaten its neighbours, as it did a century ago.

However, Professor Nagy from the International Christian University in Tokyo says it is not Mr Abe’s intention to use the threat of war as an instrument of foreign policy. Instead, constitutional reform is designed to empower Japan’s defence forces to cooperate more fully with the United States and other allies, such as Australia.

Professor Nagy says: ‘The rewrite of the constitution would help to remove the ambiguity about the role of the military and enable it to act more transparently under the law, rather than allow its function to be arbitrarily influenced by the interpretation of the constitution by various different Japanese prime ministers.’

Mr Abe has said he’ll make constitutional reform the priority for this autumn’s sessions in parliament, telling reporters in Tokyo: ‘It is a difficult challenge but I will surely achieve it.’


Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC Correspondent in Tokyo

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