Japan-South Korea Feud Explained: Why Are the Two Asian Nations at Loggerheads?

This weekend, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Seoul, South Korea, to voice their anger over a growing trade dispute with Japan, tinged with a century of bitter shared history between the two U.S. allies.

The current face-off stems from South Korean demands for compensation for the abuses inflicted on the country by Japanese occupiers before and during World War Two. The Japanese Empire controlled the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, forcing Koreans into slave labor and sexual slavery, among other crimes.

The debate over reparations has simmered for decades, but last week reached a head when Japan downgraded its trading relationship with Seoul, taking South Korea off of a 27-nation list for which exports of industrial and high-tech products are fast-tracked. The new restrictions will come into effect on August 28.

The decision was made despite last minute pressure from the U.S. With Washington locked in a trade war with China and facing a bullish regime in North Korea, the U.S. will be concerned that the Japan-South Korea spat could undermine its network of regional alliances.

Indeed, Seoul said last week it would consider withdrawing from an intelligence sharing agreement with the U.S. and Japan, which has been vital in monitoring North Korea's nuclear build up. The U.S. has largely stood back from the conflict, with President Donald Trump declaring last month that mediating would be "like a full-time job."

Even Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visit to the Asian security conference last week was not enough to break the impasse. Pompeo invited the foreign ministers of the two countries to join him in a photo, but the two stayed far apart, The New York Times reported. Planned one-on-one meetings between Pompeo and his South Korean and Japanese counterparts were cancelled, with all sides blaming scheduling conflicts.

The new trade restrictions were Japan's second move against South Korea. Last month, Tokyo tightened controls on exports of chemicals used to make semiconductors and digital flat screens, which are key elements of South Korea's economy. Japan cited unspecified national security concerns, claiming Seoul had "mishandled" items that could have military uses.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the "selfish act will inflict tremendous damage on the world economy by disrupting global supply chains...Responsibility for what is going to happen next also lies squarely with the Japanese government."

"Though Japan is an economic powerhouse, if it were to damage our economy, we likewise have countermeasures to implement in kind," the president warned, according to the BBC.

Moon's assertion that "we will never again lose to Japan" indicated that whatever the contemporary trade issue might be, there remains a strong undercurrent of historical grievance.

Such grievances have risen to the fore periodically since the end of Japan's occupation of the peninsula. Nonetheless, the two nations have become increasingly close since South Korea dropped its ban against Japanese videos and comic books in the 1990s. In 2002, the two nations even co-hosted the FIFA World Cup.

But Japan's hesitance to fully acknowledge its war-era crimes has hobbled closer ties. Though Tokyo believes it has done enough, many South Koreans disagree.

One of the most prominent issues is that of so-called "comfort women," or South Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers during the occupation. Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has previously suggested amending text in Japanese textbooks to explain that there remains debate over the history and status of comfort women.

Abe signed an agreement with Moon's predecessor Park Geun-hye in 2015, describing the deal as a "final and irreversible solution" to the comfort women dispute. But in November, Moon's administration closed a foundation established under the deal to Tokyo's chagrin.

The Reconciliation and Healing Foundation was in charge of facilitating the agreement and leading the work to help former comfort women, and its forced closure signaled that Seoul had no intention of honoring the accord. At the time, Abe said, "If one country cannot keep an international pledge, a bilateral relationship cannot be built."

The dispute is spreading to affect wider society. National carrier Korean Air, for example, said last week it would start using smaller jets for its flights to Japan because travelers were canceling their tickets, NPR reported. Meanwhile, retailers are organizing boycotts of Japanese goods and last month two elderly men died after setting themselves on fire in downtown Seoul to protest Japanese policy.

And this weekend, the governor of Japan's Aichi prefecture ordered authorities to shut down down an art exhibition that included a statue symbolizing a Korean comfort woman. The governor said he made the decision after terrorist threats were made against the exhibition.

Japan, South Korea, trade war, dispute, explained
South Korean protesters participate in a rally to denounce Japan's new trade restrictions on South Korea in front of the Japanese embassy on August 3, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea. Chung Sung-Jun/Dr Alistair McInnes, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University,