FT Financial Times
Opinion South Korea Politics & Policy
Yoichi Funabashi August 29, 2019
The trade and diplomatic dispute between Japan and South Korea has escalated sharply in recent days. On Wednesday, Tokyo officially struck South Korea from its export control “white list” of friendly countries, less than a week after Seoul announced it would terminate their intelligence-sharing agreement. Tokyo had previously restricted the export of three chemicals to South Korea in July.
It is clear that these countries no longer see each other as like-minded peers worthy of mutual trust. The current meltdown was triggered last year, when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies to compensate Korean individuals for their forced labour during the Japanese occupation in the second world war.
Japan contends the issue was settled decades earlier via treaty. The court decision has opened a Pandora’s box and could lead to a slew of disputes that would present a fundamental challenge to the peace and security of north-east Asia and the postwar order.
Washington, meanwhile, has failed to recognize the gravity of the crisis. While previous US administrations tried to bring its two most important east Asian allies closer together, president Donald Trump’s team has refused to pick up the baton.
On a visit to Tokyo in July, national security adviser John Bolton made clear that the US does not intend to get involved in the spat. A Japanese government official told me that he concluded by wishing Tokyo “good luck”.
As the crisis unfolds, there are three points that leaders in Tokyo, Seoul and Washington would do well to keep in mind. First, Tokyo needs to realise that it has both an interest in maintaining global supply chains and a responsibility to do so. Although Japan may have legitimate concern about sales of semiconductor components to undesirable countries, its government must ensure that export control regulations are implemented fairly and transparently.
The combination of Japanese materials and Korean prowess in semiconductors is a strength that should be further harnessed, not damaged. Preventing South Korea from importing Japanese chemicals critical for the semiconductor industry does exactly the wrong thing. A disruption of those supply chains would inadvertently present China with a chance to gain a stronger foothold in key technologies. Japan must recognize that South Korea is a partner, not a rival.
Second, Seoul will need to find an appropriate balance between respecting the decision of its courts, and honouring international law by upholding the 1965 Japan- South Korea normalisation agreements, which were crafted in the spirit of the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty that ended the Allied occupation of Japan.
These postwar treaties sought to avoid the mistakes made after the first world war when the Treaty of Versailles imposed punishing reparations on Germany. The agreements deliberately waived future compensation claims against Japan in an attempt to avoid a new, dangerous cycle of revenge. As such, they are the foundation of the postwar international order.
South Korea should reflect on the way other democracies have handled such competing obligations. Back in 2000, the US Department of Justice intervened in an American court case brought by US prisoners of war who sought compensation for being forced to perform labour in Japan. Government lawyers argued that the POW lawsuits were barred by the San Francisco peace treaty and that agreement would not have been reached if it had allowed for future compensation claims.
Finally, the US needs to decide on — and follow — a more coherent policy toward its allies. Mr Trump’s constant questioning of the value of the US alliances with Japan and South Korea has sparked fears within these countries of an American military withdrawal from north-east Asia.
In the early days of the post-cold war era, voices both in the US and among its allies called in to question the value of these international arrangements. But the US stood behind them and defended their value. Joseph Nye, a former defence department official and Harvard professor put it this way in a 1995 strategy report: “Security is like oxygen: you do not tend to notice it until you begin to lose it . . . The American security presence has helped provide this ‘oxygen’ for east Asian development.”
As that oxygen withers away, Asia is finding it harder to breathe. While we must continue to encourage the US to affirm its commitment to its allies, these new realities also present an opportunity. Solving the current crisis between Seoul and Tokyo will require leadership, diplomatic tactfulness, and, above all, a long breath.
The writer is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative, a think-tank
This article has been amended to make clear that South Korea was not a party to the 1951 San Francisco treaty.