Japan’s “trade dispute” with South Korea and history

The current trade dispute between Japan and South Korea is reported in the context of the history of both countries. The situation continues to escalate and boycotts against Japanese products are widespread in South Korea. What is behind the escalation of the dispute and the disagreements between the two countries?

A South Korean newspaper reported in May 2019 on illegal exports of strategically important products (more than 156 cases have been reported between 2015 and March 2019). The names of the companies, however, have not been published, and it could only be the tip of the iceberg. Since the current South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, took office (May 2017), both the import volume of three important materials from Japan and the number of South Korean illegal exports have increased massively, according to data from South Korean authorities.

In early July, Japan tightened export controls on these three materials to South Korea and also decided to end preferential trade with South Korea. This measure of Japan, which is currently being complained about by South Korea, is therefore neither an export restriction nor an export ban.

The tightening of Japan’s export controls is reportedly seen as a sanction against the violation of the 1965 Treaty between South Korea and Japan. The lawsuit, accepted by South Korea’s highest court, for further payments to former South Korean workers during World War II is likely to be a South Korean domestic matter because the workers at the time had already received payments twice through the South Korean government (1970s and 2007) paid by Japan. Against the express will of Japan at the conclusion of this treaty, which provided for direct payments to individuals, the South Korean government received all the compensation and aid money, thereby taking responsibility for the distribution of these funds to individuals. South Korea initially invested the money in building up the country, but actually distributed it later to individuals, as mentioned above.

In view of the worsening situation, a South Korean scientist published a study on the working conditions of Koreans and Japanese in Japan during the war. According to his report, there was no pay gap between the workers, which could not be explained by the work experience. Such reports from South Koreans are extremely rare, as Japan sympathizers are considered enemies before and during the war and also in the present. This trend was reinforced by a speech by President Moon Jae-in in March 2019, in which he stated that the remaining Japan sympathizers, including the cultural elements and objects adopted by Japan, needed to be liquidated. Younger generations are easily responsive to such calls because they grew up with an anti-Japanese upbringing. President Moon’s popularity has risen again. The more politicians express anti-Japanese measures, the higher their popularity will be. But a countermovement to anti-Japan and the twisted history in South Korea has now begun in South Korea. On August 15, twice as many people gathered in Seoul for a rally against anti-Japanese policies as anti-Japanese protesters. Some South Korean scientists wrote a book that presented various facts about the Japanese annexation period, which for many South Koreans, especially the younger generations, is unknown history. South Korea, which enjoys freedom and democracy, is part of the Western society, unlike China or North Korea.

Joint military maneuvers between South Korea and the US took place in August 2019, although President Moon called for cooperation with North Korea to compete with Japan.

North Korea has kidnapped many Japanese, and these Japanese cannot return to Japan yet. Moreover, Japan is constantly threatened by North Korean missile tests. The US, South Korea and Japan are working together against North Korea. Therefore, an agreement on security of military information (GSOMIA) between South Korea and Japan was concluded in 2016. However, if South Korea, as the president-in-office says, agrees to cooperate with North Korea to fight Japan, it would be difficult to comply with the agreement.

Since not only facts, but also nationally sanctioned “history” between the two countries are woven into the current disputes, only time can moderate the aggravated situation. The ruling politicians are responsible for keeping up composure, moderation, and reason, rather than inciting the people. History should not be forgotten; but it shouldn’t always be woven into new stories.


Chosun: Tairyohakaiheiki ni tenyokano na Senryakubusshi, Kankoku karano Ihoyushutsu ga kyuzo, 17.05.2019.

One Korea Daily News: Sahashihai no Gakkai wo Tsuda, Hannichi Syuzoku Shugi, 15.08.2019.http://news.onekoreanews.net/detail.php?number=86359&thread=01r04

The Asahi Shimbun: GLOBE, Kankokujin ga mita Motochoyoko Saiban, 02.11.2018. https://globe.asahi.com/article/11919752

The Sankei News: Kankokukenkyusha, Choyokosabetsu wa uso, 2 ka no Kokuren Shinpo de shucho he, 01.07.2019.https://www.sankei.com/politics/news/190701/plt1907010046-n1.html

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