South Korea and Japan have a complicated relationship with one another. They are separated by a body of water that is called either the East Sea (South Korea) or the Sea of Japan (Japan). Beyond place naming disputes lie further tensions over the ownership of islets including the Liancourt Rocks. While the rocks may not hold any great value, the physical occupation of small islands helps to consolidate fishing rights and other forms of resource extraction. As neighbouring China understands only too well in the South China Sea, the so-called ‘dots on the map’ have a value that belies their apparent size and significance. Disputed islands and seas, as geopolitical history reminds us, are perfectly capable of generating enduring nationalistic controversies.
Despite being allies during the Cold War, Japan and South Korea enjoyed a frosty co-existence. The United States enjoyed a close economic and security relationship with both countries, as all three faced a region populated by adversaries in the form of the Soviet Union, China and North Korea. Cold War geopolitical alliance-making could not, however, erase earlier experiences of Japanese colonialism and occupation in the Second World War. Most controversially, the Japanese occupation of Korea involved not only the conscription of Korean labour but also the use of so-called ‘comfort women’. While Japan did pay South Korea compensation and entered into a reconciliation treaty in the mid-1960s, Japan has been accused repeatedly of being intransigent when it comes to apologising and compensating for wartime action. In 2015, Japan issued an official apology and agreed to pay compensation to surviving victims.
This bilateral relationship is capable of some improvement. In 2002, the FIFA World Cup was shared between the two countries. But if sport provided a pathway for some improvement in diplomatic relations, at the same time nationalists on both sides were locked in dispute again about the Liancourt Rocks. In 2013, the South Korean government banned Japanese fish imports citing worries over the toxic legacy of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster. Japan and South Korea ended up settling their trade dispute in the World Trade Organization a few years later.
Earlier this year, relations between South Korea and Japan soured again. This time the culprit was a series of legal judgements issued by courts in Seoul. In two recent cases, the South Korean judiciary identified Japanese companies, Mitsubishi and Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal as being remiss in terms of compensating Korean citizens for having to work in their factories during the Japanese occupation. Notably, one court decision ordered the seizure of company assets and more asset seizure is expected to follow. Business observers on both sides are concerned about the scope and potential for escalation and disruption. Some of the things being discussed include Japan postponing ongoing wartime compensation payments, complicating visa issuance and requirements for South Korean visitors, and even imposing restrictions on materials integral to South Korean semi-conductor production. Korean media is speculating about whether Japan might restrict the export of hydrogen fluoride.
Some of these things, retaliatory or otherwise, may not materialise. South Korea and Japan are closely connected to one another in terms of supply chain networks, and both countries have business interests that would be hurt by disruption. But again this has not stopped disputes from erupting in other business sectors. In November 2018, it was announced that Japan was pursuing a WTO action against South Korea over shipbuilding subsidies. Japan is angry because it argues that the South Korean government has been illegally subsidising a Daewoo shipbuilding company. Japan argues that these cash injections have allowed South Korean shipbuilders to continue to compete and indirectly interfere with the competitive capacity of Japanese counterparts.
Diplomatic and geopolitical frostiness notwithstanding, the real issue might be the growing economic and military clout of China. The latter is the most important trading partner of South Korea, and the US has now replaced Japan as the second most important player. There is also the matter of North Korea. Both Japan and South Korea have every interest to co-operate with one another in ensuring their mutual regional security. The current Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been eager to cultivate a good relationship with the Trump administration and is eager to be more actively involved in the geopolitics of the Korean peninsula. Japan may be a key player in any post-nuclear deal with the North Korean regime.
Japan and South Korea have every incentive to get along with each other, even if there are schisms. Both countries need each other and they need allies, economic and geopolitical. The volatility of geopolitics of East Asia means that isolation is not a sensible option.
This was published in the May 2019 edition of Geographical magazine