The author has no other choice but to begin his latest article on the problematic nature of the relationship between Japan and the Republic of Korea / South Korea (both important neighbors of Russia) with either the adverb ‘sadly’ or ‘unfortunately’. The New Eastern Outlook recently reported on the downward trend in these relations, which only continue to deteriorate with the latest developments.
This time around, the issue is ‘tighter export controls’ (which may de facto prove to be a ban) against South Korea over three core compounds, used in the manufacture of microchips and other key components of products made by leading ROK companies.
These measures are to come into effect on 4 July of this year and are expected to have the biggest adverse effect on well-known South Korean companies such as the Samsung Group and the LG Group. Japanese companies that sell the previously mentioned materials to the ROK will have to seek permission from the government ‘for every export contract’. The screening of each application may take up to 3 months.
Two days earlier, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga had told media representatives that the measure would be imposed for ‘national security reasons, not as retaliation against South Korea’, and that it did not ‘go against the spirit of free trade or World Trade Organization rules’.
The official then added the following statement (that will require further clarification): “South Korea did not show a satisfactory solution over the issue of former workers on the Korean Peninsula before the Group of 20 summit”.
In Seoul, the term ‘former employees’ refers to Koreans who were forcibly recruited by Japanese companies Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corporation during World War II. A South Korean court delivered a verdict on this issue, according to which, the ROK assets of the former company were to be sold off, and the proceeds used to compensate the Korean workers (still alive today) for their suffering.
As for the phrase ‘before the Group of 20 summit’, it probably means that as a host of one of the most important events of 2019, Japan would have preferred to resolve yet another issue (which seemingly arose out of nowhere) plaguing the relationship with one of its participants before-hand. In order for this to happen, a proposal to employ a third party mediator was made to Seoul. And South Koreans were given the option of choosing this intermediary.
However, the ROK leadership rejected the proposal and demanded more apologies from Tokyo for its actions (from almost a century ago) and monetary compensation for the plaintiffs.
Although the dust has not yet settled after Seoul essentially withdrew from a bilateral agreement on ‘the comfort women issue’, signed by Japan and South Korea at the end of 2015 (which led to the prosecution of the ROK President at the time, Park Geun-hye), new ‘historical grievances’ have already cropped up that require apologizing for.
Tokyo made it clear that it was tired of such complaints and responded by dealing a blow to an exceptionally susceptible sector of ROK’s economy. It seems apt to note that economic collaboration with Japan, by and large, brought about the phenomenon of ‘Asian Tigers’ (which include South Korea). And it turns out that this cooperation remains an important factor to this day.
In the previously mentioned speech, Yoshihide Suga also said that the export controls system (beneficial to both nations) was ‘founded on mutual trust’ and it was ‘difficult to continue with the current arrangements following moves by South Korea to deny the friendly and cooperative relationship between Tokyo and Seoul’. According to the top government official, in the current climate Tokyo was forced ‘to impose tighter controls on technology-related exports to South Korea’.
In all likelihood, Seoul had not anticipated consequences of this nature in retaliation for its games, which could collectively be referred to as ‘reaping of benefits for historical wrong-doings’ that Japan had inflicted at some point in the past and ‘had been sentenced to constantly feel guilty about’. Currently there is talk about a WTO complaint against Japan in South Korea.
In the meantime, the previously mentioned consequences for Seoul have extended far beyond economic losses stemming from Tokyo’s measures. Public opinion polls in Japan indicate that anti-Korean sentiments among the population are on the rise.
The most recent survey, jointly conducted by Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun and South Korea’s Hankook Ilbo, showed that, at present, such ill will was felt by 74% of Japanese people. In other words, in 6 months’ time this negativity towards South Koreans increased by 7% in comparison to the survey data collected at the end of 2018. In contrast, the proportion of ROK citizens harboring anti-Japanese sentiments has remained unchanged (at 80%) in recent years.
Feelings of such mutual distrust are not even expressed by residents of Japan and the PRC towards each other.
Evidently, the complex game of internal politics within the ROK (which the New Eastern Outlook has continued to focus on) had a significant effect on the obviously counter-productive steps taken by Seoul towards Japan on, at first, the issue of ‘comfort women’ and then on ‘forcibly recruited workers’. The country’s national interests have also become hostage to conflicting political factions in South Korea.
The unabated tensions between Japan and the ROK (resulting in deterioration in their bilateral relations) have added quite a destructive element to the situation unfolding in Northeast Asia.
Still, some people may view these developments in a positive light. For example, these tensions have prevented the United States from establishing a trilateral military and political alliance with Japan and South Korea for a number of years now. This remains a source of frustration for the USA, as it has a bilateral partnership with both of these nations.
However, there are more and more signs that maintaining such alliances (and keeping up with the obligations associated with them) has become irrelevant for Washington in this post-Cold War period. The leading world power is currently searching for its new position and role on the international stage.
The global political landscape is undergoing a transformation process, which is rapidly increasing in pace under the influence of unknown factors and forces and also happens to lack clear goals and directions.
And possibly, it is simply human egotism and stupidity (as in this particular case) that are behind the current phase of ‘history’s grand scheme’.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.