South Korea-Japan animosity risks strategic alliance

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By Donald Kirk

TOKYO ― Korean and Japanese relations have plunged to their lowest depths since the Korean War, and there’s apparently no reconciliation in sight. The governments in Seoul and Tokyo are engaged in a game of dare and double-dare in which each tries to out-threaten the other with hurtful measures and harmful results.

The Japanese, banning the export of vital, chemical ingredients for semiconductors manufactured by Korean electronics giants such as Samsung, clearly think they are hitting South Koreans where it hurts.

They go on claiming some of these chemicals are making their way into North Korea while South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in pursues what Japan’s arch-conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sees as a dangerous policy of appeasement with a regime that’s never going to relinquish its nuclear warheads and the missiles that could send them hurtling at Japan.

There is, moreover, much more behind Japan’s de facto ban.

What a great way, the Japanese are convinced, to go after those Koreans after all the stuff they’ve been doing to us over the years. Most recently, the Japanese are aggrieved by Korean court decisions ordering immense Japanese companies such as Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate aging Koreans who were forced to work for them as slave labor in the darkest days of Japanese domination during World War II.

The individual sums ordered by the Korean Supreme Court were small change for these behemoths, less than $100,000 each, but the Japanese go back to the agreement reached with South Korea’s dictatorial President Park Chung-Hee in 1965 under which the Republic of Korea and Japan formed diplomatic relations.

A critical element was that the nation whose 35 years of rule over Korea only ended with its defeat 20 years earlier would extend grants and loans totaling $800 million. That figure would amount to about $6.4 billion today, which seemed like a pretty hefty sum at the time.

Entrusted with this windfall from the nation in whose army he had once served as a lieutenant in Manchuria, Park could dispose of the funds as he saw fit. Sure, he might pay off hundreds of thousands of Koreans enslaved under the Japanese, including comfort women and factory workers. Then again, he might invest in infrastructural projects needed to build up an economy recovering from the devastation of the Korean War on top of decades of exploitation by the Japanese colonialists.

As far as the Japanese are concerned, the deal was a deal. No way, they say, can the Koreans go back on what was signed and sealed even if the Korean president at the time was a tyrant who saw the demands of victims of Japanese rule as distinctly secondary, if not irrelevant. No telling, says Japan, what the Korean courts will do next. Expropriating Japanese assets, taking over Japanese investment ― such options are always possible under Korean policy buttressed by court decisions.

If such concerns seem understandable, they also reflect a distinct sense of superiority among the Japanese who see their economy, their own rise from terrible defeat in the “Pacific War,” their record as a one-time imperial power, as justification for demonstrating the righteousness of their position.

Beyond placing restraints on vital exports needed for Korean-made semiconductors, a product on which the Korean economy relies to excess for success, the Japanese hint darkly at much more they might do to show who holds the power. Among other things, why not constraints on exports of high-tech gadgetry needed for the machines with which Korean factories spin out heavy-duty products ranging from motor vehicles to ships to computers?

In the end, both sides suffer. Yes, as President Moon has said, Korea can look elsewhere for what it must have to make and sell its products. Korea may not be able to trust China, revealed as a calculating bully by kicking out Korean companies and cancelling tour groups in retaliation for Korean acceptance of THAAD, the facility installed by the U.S. army for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, but Korea has other places to turn.

How about Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin is eager to improve relations with South as well as North Korea? And then there’s Taiwan, the capitalist island enclave that remains aloof and apart from the Chinese mainland despite Beijing’s incessant claims and threats.

Japan and Korea, however, really do need each other. Over nearly 80 years since the Japanese surrender, and 66 years since the end of the Korean War, they’ve built up a network of ties, industrial, financial and cultural that go far beyond current differences.

Both will suffer from the ongoing impasse. No one knows where or how this dispute will end, but one thing is certain: North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, while luring the South from the U.S. alliance and undermining Japan’s relationship with the U.S.,must love seeing Japan and South Korea at each other’s throats .

Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades.

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