Even as military tensions in the Korean peninsula began rising once again, a diplomatic and trade skirmish erupted between Seoul and Tokyo. The United States chose to remain a bystander as South Korea and Japan, its military allies since the Cold War, continued to squabble over issues left over from history and the legacy of the Second World War. The latest and the most serious rift between the two East Asian countries started over South Korea’s demand for Japanese war reparations for “forced labour” and “comfort women”. Korean women were forced into prostitution during the Second World War and were deemed to be, in Japanese parlance, “comfort women”.
Korea was a Japanese colony from 1910 to 1945. Koreans feel that Japan has not fully acknowledged the atrocities it committed as an occupying power and coloniser. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been particularly unapologetic about Japanese war crimes. Since coming to power, he worked to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution and restore the country’s military pride. The two countries are also embroiled in a territorial dispute over two islets that lie in the Sea of Japan. The dispute has festered for the past 300 years.
Relations between the two countries started going downhill after South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled last year that two Japanese companies, Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, should pay additional war reparations to individual victims used as “forced labour” during the War. Cases against Toshiba, Panasonic, Nissan and other big Japanese companies are pending in lower courts. In all, 7.8 million Koreans were conscripted either as forced labour or soldiers during the War. The Japanese government claimed that it had already settled all War-related claims when it paid $500 million in free aid and cheap loans to South Korea in 1965 after the two countries established diplomatic ties. But individual Koreans who had suffered at the hands of the Japanese got no compensation.
The Japanese aid was used by the dictatorial Korean government of Park Chung-hee to help conglomerates to establish themselves and prosper. The issue of “comfort women” was not addressed at the time. Interestingly, Park had willingly fought for the Japanese Army in the War in the rank of a lieutenant. His daughter, Park Gyeun-hee, who was elected to the presidency in 2013 and was impeached on corruption charges in 2017, used her influence when in office to prevent the passing of any adverse judgment against Japanese conglomerates on the issue.
Japan’s refusal to heed the latest South Korean court ruling has raised nationalistic fervour in South Korea. Abe said that there was no question of Japan heeding the court’s judgment and told Seoul to desist from implementing the court’s decision. Japan said that all claims arising out of the colonial era had been “settled completely and finally” as per the treaty that established diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1965.
Reacting to statements by Abe and other leading politicians, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said that the Japanese government needed to be “humbler on the issue”. A call to boycott Japanese goods in South Korea has been widely heeded.
Japan’s response, it seems, was stronger than what South Korea expected. Tokyo removed Seoul from its list of preferred trading partners and sharply restricted the export of three chemicals that are crucial for South Korea’s booming electronics sector. The chemicals are essential for the making of semiconductors and flat panel displays. South Korea retaliated by downgrading Japan’s trade status, removing the country from the “white list” of most trusted trading partners.
By the third week of August, both sides started to have a rethink about the face-off. Senior U.S. administration officials have issued warnings to both countries to calm things down. The U.S. claimed that the rift between the two countries adversely impacted the efforts to contain the looming threats emanating from China, North Korea and Russia.
Moon, speaking on August 15 on the occasion of the 74th anniversary of Japan’s surrender in the Second World War, offered an olive branch to Tokyo. “If Japan chooses the path of dialogue and cooperation, we will gladly join hands,” he said. At the same time, he said his country would continue the march towards “overtaking Japan and guiding it towards a cooperative order in East Asia”. Japan reciprocated by easing its restrictions on the export of hi-tech materials to South Korea.
North Korean missile tests
Meanwhile, North Korea, tired of waiting for sanctions relief and realising that the prospects of a grand nuclear deal with the U.S administration was receding by the day, tested a series of new short-range missiles and projectiles. The immediate provocation for the tests was the resumption of massive U.S.-South Korean military exercises along the border with the North in the first week of August. North Korea views the two-week-long war games as a rehearsal for a full-scale military attack. The joint exercises, a statement from Pyongyang said, compelled the country “to develop, test and deploy powerful physical means essential for national defence”. Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, said that the new missile launches “would send an adequate warning” to the U.S. and Seoul.
U.S. President Donald Trump sought to play down the significance of the missile tests, saying that North Korea had neither tested new long-range missiles nor conducted another nuclear test. He indicated that he had received another “beautiful” letter from the North Korean leader after the initial round of missile tests. Trump said he would have another summit meeting with Kim soon. The Pentagon has described the two-week-long joint military exercises in the Korean peninsula as “low key”, in an apparent effort to calm nerves in Pyongyang. There were no B-52 bombers and fighter planes flying in formation along the demilitarised zone (DMZ), which divides the two Koreas, like in previous years.
After his first summit with the North Korean leader, Trump had in fact announced that he was planning to suspend the joint war games, calling them “expensive” and “provocative”. But though the scale of the exercise has been reduced, the joint exercises involving the South Korean and U.S. armies continue to remain an annual feature. Pyongyang had warned in 2018 that it would be left with no option but to resume nuclear and long-range ballistic missile testing if the joint military exercises were held again. North Korea has not carried out the threat, but it has sent strong signals to the international community that its patience is running out.
Many U.S. and South Korean commentators and analysts are of the view that the latest missile tests by North Korea are an attempt to persuade the U.S. to restart the nuclear talks at the earliest.
The U.S. military conceded that the missiles launched by North Korea recently were new and had a range of more than 700 kilometres. The U.S. was of the view that the North Korean missiles were modelled after Russia’s “Iskandar” missiles and could have the capability to evade the U.S. and South Korean military radars, including the much-touted U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defence System, or THAAD. The new missiles and rocket systems tested by North Korea used solid fuel and were fired from mobile launchers, making them easier to transport and hide.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in the second week of August that the missile tests by North Korea would not disrupt the resumption of nuclear talks. He said he expected the talks to begin within weeks. North Korea, in recent months, seems to have been distancing itself from South Korea, despite the role played by Moon in building the groundwork for the talks between Kim and Trump. The South Korean President and the North Korean leader met three times in the past two years. Trump has met Kim thrice. In fact, he became the first U.S. President to symbolically set foot on North Korean soil when he briefly crossed the DMZ after meeting Kim in June.
North Korea has accused Moon of backtracking on his commitments to invest and expand bilateral trade between the two countries. The previous right-wing South Korean government, which had adopted a provocative policy against the North, had closed down factories that were set up by Korean conglomerates across the border. The government in Seoul at the time under Park Gyeun-hee had fully subscribed to the U.S. dream of regime change in North Korea.
Unlike his immediate and discredited predecessor, Moon has been for long a votary of better relations with the North, but the wide-ranging United Nations-mandated sanctions prevent South Korea from doing more for the North. Moon, in a recent speech, said that the international community had pledged to help North Korea if it gave up its nuclear programme. The two Koreas, Moon said, could prosper together in “an integrated peace economy” if Pyongyang “chooses economic prosperity over its nuclear programme”.
A spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry described Moon’s statement as “preposterous” and accused the South Korean President of preparing for war. The joint military exercise South Korea was conducting with the West was part of a plan to “annihilate” North Korea, the spokesman said. Seoul while accusing Pyongyang of testing new weapons, has been busy strengthening its own military. In early August, the South Korean military announced that it had earmarked billions of dollars to build warships and precision-guided weapons.
Moon, who at one time was a peace activist, has bowed to Trump’s demand and agreed to give around a billion dollars more annually to the U.S. for the stationing of its troops in the Korean peninsula. Trump has been saying that keeping U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan has been “very expensive” and that it is time the two countries coughed up more money for their deployment on their soil. After his first summit with Kim in Singapore, Trump called the annual joint military exercises on the Korean peninsula as “tremendously expensive” and “very provocative”.
In recent months, Moon, much to the annoyance of North Korea, has stressed the importance of the military alliance with the U.S. This gives credence to Pyongyang’s position that it is Washington that holds most of the cards on the Korean peninsula and that it is a waste of time talking to Seoul.