South Korea and Japan Are Weaponizing History
By poking at historical wounds to consolidate domestic support, South Korea and Japan risk more than just diplomacy.
In July and August, two South Korean men set themselves on fire to protest against the Japanese government. In the weeks that followed, footage of a Seoul citizen assaulting a Japanese tourist went viral online. Only days later, a letter declaring “I’ve got a rifle and I’m hunting Koreans” was sent to the South Korean embassy in Tokyo. The envelope was said to contain a bullet.
Bitter tensions are nothing new for South Korea and Japan. Unresolved historical grievances following Japan’s occupation of Korea between 1910-1945 have plagued diplomatic ties for decades. But relations between Seoul and Tokyo have soured at an alarming rate in recent months. The current crisis has steeped historical resentment into the economy, defense strategy, and even the streets.
The most recent casualty of the fallout is South Korea’s withdrawal from a bilateral intelligence-sharing pact on August 22. The General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) was designed to allow the South Korean and Japanese governments to pool sensitive information regarding, among other things, the North Korean missile and nuclear programs.
Without the GSOMIA, redacted intelligence will have to be filtered through the United States at a less efficient pace. This is hugely detrimental to regional stability, as Pyongyang resumed its missile testing in July and is currently in the process of developing a new generation of short-range missiles which can hit any number of targets in South Korea and southern Japan. Abandoning the pact leaves the threat of North Korean militarization unchecked and under scrutinized.
The collapse of the GSOMIA is grave, but it is only the latest in a series of escalations waged between Seoul and Tokyo. In October 2018, South Korea's Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to elderly Koreans who were used as unpaid laborers during the occupation. Japan maintains that all such claims were settled by a 1965 treaty which included a $500 million reparations package, and subsequently by an $8.3 million agreement over "comfort women" in 2015.
In early August, Japan removed South Korea's "whitelist" trade status and implemented export restrictions on chemicals important in smartphone manufacturing. The move is widely considered to penalize South Korean industry in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling. President Moon was fierce in his condemnation of “the clear intention to attack and hurt our economy by impeding its future growth.” Indeed, Japan’s 90% market share of the ultrapure hydrogen fluoride gas required for chipmaking makes it very difficult for the likes of Samsung and LG to manufacture semiconductors, presenting a serious threat to market supply chains.
South Korea has less leverage over manufacturing than Japan, but ordinary citizens have commenced a boycott of Japanese products which is gathering momentum. Imports of Japanese beer, previously valued at more than $73 million per year, have plummeted by 97% since August 2018. Toyota’s sales have dropped by 59% and Honda’s by 81% in the same period. Police in Seoul reported a record number of calls relating to vandalism of Japanese cars using fermented food, with #KimchiSlapped even trending on Twitter.
Japan seems to be wilfully aggravating these tensions by reiterating its claim to the Takeshima islands, presently controlled by South Korea who refers to them as Dok-do. The latest military budget proposal under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calls for 159 armed officers to guard against "armed groups who illegally land" on overseas territories. Provocative components in an already controversial record defense budget are unlikely to defuse the stalemate.
Politicians in both countries are whipping up historical bugbears to consolidate domestic support. Prime Minister Abe enjoys the approval of a majority of Japanese citizens who are incensed by what they see as South Korean political opportunism. President Moon, whose party is seeking re-election in 2020, is riding a wave of national support for his platform of "standing up" to perceived Japanese hostility.
Both nations are accusing each other of exploiting historical animosity to advance political agendas, but neither is willing to concede their own participation. As International Relations specialist Victor Cha argues, "South Korea-Japan diplomacy is an utter failure. Each side is seeking maximalist goals with an unwillingness to compromise." The historical debate is being weaponized by both countries to provide a popular mandate for advancing policy goals.
By fuelling anti-Korean sentiment, Japan can continue to stage a trade war which directly benefits its own industry. Penalties leveled at South Korean technological rivals allow Japan to strengthen its competitiveness in many sectors, including electronics, automobiles, and telecommunications. Likewise, in Seoul, pandering to anti-Japanese passions is a convenient distraction from a stalling economy, and faltering negotiations with North Korea. With the 2020 election approaching, mobilizing popular support is more crucial to Moon's Democratic Party than maintaining regional stability.
Given the growing anger among the electorate in both countries, stoked by incendiary rhetoric and historical outrage, Tokyo and Seoul may find it hard to back down from the cycle of retaliation they have pursued. As long as South Korea and Japan remain at loggerheads, security and economic cooperation are jeopardized, leaving North Korea greater latitude to expand its nuclear capabilities.
Roddy Howland-Jackson is a research associate at Lexington Institute completing his studies at Oxford University. Follow Roddy on Twitter @roddyhj