In Japan-South Korea trade war, friendly gestures mean it’s worse than ever

In Japan-South Korea trade war, friendly gestures mean it’s worse than ever

Japan and South Korea have both put forward proposals on how they could patch up their recent disagreements over trade restrictions and historical issues, but fresh accusations between the two countries suggest a true detente remains a long way off. The barbs come in response to an announcement on Friday that South Korea had agreed to extend an intelligence-sharing pact in last-ditch diplomatic talks just hours before the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was due to expire.

South China Morning Post reports in its article In Japan-South Korea trade war, friendly gestures mean it’s worse than ever that Seoul also said on Friday it would halt a complaint it filed with the World Trade Organisation over the export controls Japan imposed on three chemicals crucial to South Korea’s microchip industry.

Japan has since announced it would be willing to review the export controls if Seoul meets three conditions: a commitment to continuing bilateral discussions; new measures to strengthen its monitoring of exports of sensitive equipment to third nations and the introduction of new legislation to prohibit its exports from being used to develop weapons in other countries.

There was no mention of South Korean courts approving compensation suits brought by former labourers forced to work for Japanese companies during Tokyo’s colonial rule of the peninsula. These rulings were widely believed to have triggered anger in Japanese Prime Minister 

Shinzo Abe’s government, which insists all compensation claims were settled in the 1965 treaty that normalised ties between the two countries. And on Wednesday, a proposal was unveiled by Moon Hee-sang, the speaker of the South Korean national assembly, for the creation of a foundation that would accept donations from companies, individuals and the governments of both Japan and South Korea and for the funds to be shared between the victims.

Tokyo has already ruled out a similar proposal and places little faith in agreements ostensibly designed to provide compensation and draw a final line under contentious historical issues after the government of President Moon Jae-in unilaterally scrapped an agreement to provide similar compensation to former “comfort women” forced to serve in military brothels in the early decades of the last century.

Analysts are not optimistic that the two sides will be able to put aside their differences to reach a lasting agreement, with any “goodwill” generated by Seoul agreeing to extend the intelligence-sharing pact on Friday quickly dissipating in renewed accusations.

Japanese newspapers hinted Abe had prevailed over Moon and the South Korean leader had lost face, while South Korean media hit back, claiming Japanese officials had “apologised” for imposing restrictions on its exports. Tokyo angrily denied having made any such apology, and South Korean government officials protested at Japan “distorting the facts” on Seoul’s decision to renew the GSOMIA pact.

“We haven’t seen the last of Korea-Japan diplomatic recriminations and tough negotiations,” said Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international relations at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

“A compensation fund needs to be set up in South Korea to pay wartime labour plaintiffs. At the same time, trade security officials from the two countries should determine a process for lifting Tokyo’s export restrictions,” he said. “If discussions fail and Korean authorities liquidate Japanese corporate assets as wartime compensation, Japan’s export controls will really start to hurt the Korean economy.”

If the South’s economy does take a noticeable nose-dive, Koreans are likely to very quickly lay the blame at Japan’s door and rapprochement will be even more distant, he warned.

“Personally, I’m very pessimistic about the relationship,” said Robert Dujarric, a professor of international relations at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.

“On the face of it, the South Korean proposal sounds good, but it would have been far better if this had been put forward before the courts started handing down rulings in favour of the forced labourers,” he said. “At that point, it might have even been possible to get some Japanese companies involved and gained some traction.

“The Japanese plan, on the other hand, sounds like a non-starter because Seoul will not just accept those demands for new laws,” he said.

“I think that there are some on the Japanese side who have realised now that the export restrictions were a mistake – certainly Japanese companies are strongly against them – and there is a growing recognition that they need to find a way out.

“The problem is that there is not an obvious way out and things have gone too far for either side to back down,” Dujarric said. “I do not believe this is going to get to the point where the two countries will actually be fighting each other, but this is going to take a very long time to heal.”

South Korea said on Friday it still has the right to withdraw from the GSOMIA pact at any time, while Japan has said it can keep its trade restrictions in place or, in an escalation of the situation, impose restrictions on more exports.

Ill feeling over the disputes resulted in a two-thirds decline in the number of South Koreans visiting Japan in October. Japan’s exports to South Korea also fell by 23 per cent in October.

Abe and Moon are due to attend three-way talks with China in Chengdu next month, with the South Koreans saying they will attempt to set up a side meeting between both leaders.

Apart from a short meeting on the sidelines of the Asean summit in Thailand earlier in November, they have not had formal talks for more than a year.


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