The Japan-South Korea trade war: 5 geopolitical points you need to know


  1. Japan and Korea’s deep history of conflict: Japan and South Korea’s conflict has deep roots and has existed for a long time. Japan colonized Korea in 1910 and ruled it, sometimes with great brutality, until it was defeated in World War II 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. last October, when 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, which Japan strongly opposed. However, 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. This changed last month. 


  2. The escalating trade war: South Korea and Japan are embroiled in a bitter trade war that could have consequences for a global economy that is already suffering from another trade war between the US and China. Last month, Japan announced it would tighten control over three chemicals fluorinated polyamides, photoresists, and hydrogen fluoride that are crucial to producing semiconductors in Korea. Under new regulations, Japanese companies would need a license for each chemical to import them to South Korea. Japan claimed it was setting such restrictions because it believed South Korea was leaking sensitive information to North Korea, although they did not provide proof for these claims. After South Korea denied the claims, Japan went on to remove South Korea from its “white list,” an index of trusted trade partners. South Koreans are furious at Japan. And they’re displaying their anger by boycotting Japanese beer and clothing brands, as well as travel to the country.


  3. South Koreans united in fighting Japan:South Korea has responded furiously to Japan’s move and the whole nation is contributing, as thousands of South Koreans have started boycotting Japanese brands since early July, while some South Koreans have received backlash for taking their frustrations out on Japanese tourists and immigrants one restaurant in Busan, for example, reportedly put up a sign that reads, “No Japanese people allowed inside.” Meanwhile, South Korea is floating the idea of removing itself from the General Security of Military Operations Agreement or GSOMIA, an intelligence-sharing agreement also involving Japan and the United States. Overall, the response has been strong, meaning both sides have plunged into a trade war. 


  4. What can Japan do to mend ties? Japan’s trade war with South Korea will hurt the Japanese economy, and there is hope that a solution is in sight. Leveraging off Washington’s clout, Japan should also seek more trilateral talks with the U.S. and South Korea to prevent Seoul from pursuing further misguided policies with regard to China and North Korea. From a long-term perspective, it is also important for Japan to make efforts to reduce South Korea’s heavy dependence on trade with China and help boost the country’s economic importance. This will not be easy, however, and will require a willingness from SK as well. 


  5. Trade war puts the US in a bad position: The US has found itself in a strange and difficult position, as Japan and South Korea are both its close allies in the region. U.S. President Donald Trump said Friday that South Korea and Japan need to resolve outstanding issues between them, as friction between the two threatens to damage trilateral cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear threats. He said the disputes over trade and shared history has put the U.S. in a “very difficult position. They have to get along with each other. If they don’t get along, what are we doing?” Trump said. “It’s very important. South Korea and Japan have to sit down and get along with each other.” Although these comments do not aid the situation in any way, they are true, as friction between Japan and SK will only serve as an advantage to North Korea for their geopolitical plans in the region.

Hazem Zahab

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