Japan and South Korea’s History Wars Are About to Get Ugly
As Seoul targets Japanese businesses, hopes that pragmatism would prevail seem all but erased.
This week, on the eve of Japanese Emperor Akihito’s abdication, South Korean President Moon Jae-in praised the leader for his role in fostering positive ties between Japan and South Korea. The moment was a welcome, and all too rare, moment of positivity in an often tense bilateral relationship. Unfortunately, Moon’s greetings—however gracious—belie more trouble ahead. In April, for example, municipal authorities in Seoul canceled a permit necessary for the construction of Japan’s new embassy in the capital—apparently because of construction delays on the Japanese side. With the permit canceled, Tokyo has scrapped plans for a new embassy and will continue with a smaller diplomatic footprint in South Korea. Adding to the tensions, later in April the World Trade Organization upheld South Korea’s ban on imports of Japanese seafood from the Fukushima area, which was instated after the nuclear disaster in 2011. Tokyo reacted with strong disapproval of the ruling and continues to criticize South Korea’s restrictions.
But the recent incidents are just minor irritants in overall poor relations between the governments on both sides over historical and territorial disputes. The most pressing of these is the issue of compensation for wartime laborers during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, with the South Korean Supreme Court ruling last November that the Japanese multinational corporation Mitsubishi Heavy Industries—the country’s largest defense contractor—was culpable for what it described as forced labor and owed approximately $100,000 each in compensation to five former workers. The ruling, which was upheld from earlier findings from lower South Korean courts, was preceded by a similar verdict in October 2018 that ordered another Japanese company—Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal Corp.—to compensate four former workers.
In Japan, the reaction to the rulings was explosive. The administration of Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which insists that all such matters were legally resolved by the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations signed by Japan and South Korea, has warned that the verdict will result in a flood of similar cases. (Indeed, there are more than a dozen such cases currently awaiting rulings in South Korea’s lower courts.) It has also argued that the rulings are contrary to international law and even raised the possibility that it may bring the cases to the International Court of Justice. More alarming—and evidence of the seriousness of the issue—is Tokyo’s warning that it might have to seize some assets of South Korean companies operating in Japan if the South Korean government forces Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to provide the compensation according to the court rulings.
Meanwhile, the Moon administration in South Korea has done little to reduce sentiments in his country that Tokyo is an unrepentant former colonial power. Rather, the Moon administration has stood by as South Korean courts have proceeded to approve the seizure of assets from Japanese companies implicated in the lawsuits. There has also been little attempt to resolve the matter diplomatically or provide realistic alternative options for Tokyo. Meanwhile, the sad reality is that there is very little patience left in Japan for a seemingly endless back-and-forth with South Korea on history-related matters.
Beyond the compensation of wartime laborers, the relationship continues to be plagued by divisions over the issue of so-called Korean comfort women, many of whom were forced to work in Japanese brothels on the peninsula during its occupation by Imperial Japan. In 2015, the two sides signed a pact that declared it had “finally and irreversibly” resolved the debate over how Japan should atone. But the Moon administration, elected last year after the exit of former leader Park Geun-hye, quickly moved to revive the issue.
Moon, who was highly critical of the 2015 deal during his election campaign, has now decided to shut down the South Korean government-led body that administered payments out of the billion-yen (about $9 million) fund that Japan committed to compensate surviving women forced to work in Japanese brothels and their families. In other words, rather than allowing—even passively—the 2015 pact to stand while working on ways to address lingering concerns on the matter, Moon has opted to dismantle it while clinging to his insistence that he has not.
There’s a seemingly endless reservoir of other history fights, too, including the content in history textbooks, Japan and South Korea’s dispute of the Liancourt Rocks (controlled by South Korea, which refers to them as Dokdo, and also claimed by Japan, which refers to them as Takeshima), and even the choice of clothing by South Korean pop stars.
Given this toxic atmosphere, dialogue has ground to halt, snuffling out any optimism about the Moon-Abe period, which saw its first visits by Abe to South Korea in February 2018, to attend the opening ceremonies of the Pyeongchang Olympics, and Moon to Japan in May 2018, to attend a trilateral summit with China. But despite attempts to return to a more stable relationship, Tokyo and Seoul have gone the opposite direction, as building mistrust on history-related matters has once again come to define their bilateral ties.
The importance of restoring stability to the Japanese-South Korean relationship is crucial—and not only for those two countries. They are also key U.S. allies that are essential in deterring provocations on the Korean Peninsula. Washington also has long hoped the two allies would work more closely to address the strategic challenge posed by China. Unfortunately, there is currently little appetite in Washington to address this growing feud between its key allies. The Trump administration has rather preferred to deal with Japan and South Korea on separate bilateral tracts and has downplayed the importance of trilateral coordination on dealing with North Korea and its nuclear weapons program.
There are no easy avenues for fixing ties, but this is the moment to try. The Moon administration should address Tokyo’s legitimate concerns on the issue of court-mandated compensation for wartime laborers. The potential of the South Korean government forcibly seizing assets from Japanese companies in South Korea is a nightmare scenario and could take the relationship to an area beyond repair. Moon should look to cut this disastrous possibility off at the knees by making a declaration from the executive branch. Such a declaration could find a more creative solution that respects the court rulings but opts to secure the compensation from the South Korean companies, such as Posco, that were already awarded compensation from Japan under the 1965 treaty. Japanese companies could respond in kind to this gesture by making symbolic—not legal—donations to individual workers who filed lawsuits.
Finding a way to resolve this issue won’t fully repair the relationship, but it will put diplomatic talks back on a solid footing. Complications will remain, but it is essential that Tokyo and Seoul take the steps necessary to preserve their bilateral relationship. Otherwise, the current rift in the relationship could turn into a cavernous trench that could extend well beyond the tenures of Abe and Moon.
The implications of such a deterioration would be profound and would extend beyond the bilateral relationship. Weakened ties between Japan and Korea will add further uncertainty to efforts to deter and contain threats from North Korea, which appears to be giving the Trump administration a limited time to relieve sanctions or else face the potential of new nuclear or missile tests. The strain also weakens U.S. attempts bring its allies and partners together in support of its new Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy that seeks to curb an assertive China. For those reasons, it is worth being wary of the near-complete erosion of cooperation between Japan and South Korea.