Waterloo Region Record

Japan-Korea trade dispute is rooted in complex and harsh history

Strife is between ex-imperial power and its former colony

- GWYNNE DYER Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).”

Nation-states, like four-year-olds, find it very hard to admit they are in the wrong and apologize. Adult interventi­on often helps, but all Japan and South Korea have is U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. So the trade war between the two grows and festers.

There are obvious similariti­es with the trade war that Donald Trump is waging against China, with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe playing the Trump role: blustering bully with no clear game plan. Like the Trump trade war, too, the Japan-South Korea confrontat­ion threatens to destabiliz­e both East Asian security arrangemen­ts and the global market. Yet the confrontat­ion between Tokyo and Seoul is not really about trade at all. It’s about the difficult history of relations between an ex-imperial power, Japan, and its former colony, Korea.

Japan is existentia­lly in the wrong in this relationsh­ip because it seized control of Korea in 1905 and ruled it, sometimes with great brutality, until it was defeated in the Second World War in 1945. But Tokyo doesn’t like to be reminded of all that and claims that it discharged whatever moral debt it owed when it paid $500 million to Seoul in 1965. Almost all the money went to building up South Korea’s new export industries. Japan offered to pay compensati­on directly to Korean individual­s who had suffered forced labour and other injustices during the Second World War, but Seoul preferred to take a lump sum (and spend almost all the money on developmen­t). Many of the victims got little or nothing. The resentment this caused was easily diverted onto Japan, which had driven a hard bargain and failed to accompany the compensati­on with an apology.

Last October, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled that the lump sum, government-to-government deal of 1965 did not cover damages for the mental anguish of individual wartime labourers. Subsequent rulings have authorized South Korean individual­s to claim compensati­on from the Japanese industries that used their labour by forced legal sales of those companies’ assets in South Korea. The Court was clearly stretching the law almost to breaking point, but in practical political terms, he could not disown it. Japan, on the other hand, was horrified by the ruling. Accepting it would open the door to huge claims for compensati­on from people who had suffered “mental anguish” from the Japanese occupation in all the other countries Japan invaded between 1937 and 1945. It also felt betrayed: half a century ago, it had paid out a lot of money to extinguish any further claims like these.

There has never been much love lost between Japan and Korea, but the two countries have almost always managed to keep important issues like trade and national security separate from the emotional flare-ups that make the relationsh­ip so fraught. Last month, however, Prime Minister Abe completely lost the plot. He began imposing restrictio­ns on Japanese exports to South Korea. They are relatively minor restrictio­ns. Japan has removed South Korea from its “whitelist” of countries that are allowed to buy goods that can be diverted for military use with minimal restrictio­ns. A little hurdle to cross, meant to rebuke and annoy South Korea, not to cause serious injury. But it has been very successful in annoying South Koreans, who have spontaneou­sly organized a quite effective boycott of Japanese-made goods. And this confrontat­ion is now raising the prospect that these long-establishe­d trading partners are going to have a real trade war. Which, with help from the bigger trade war Donald Trump started with China, may be enough to tip the world economy into a deep recession.

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