These ominous developments show why Seoul and Tokyo should work together against their common enemies rather than bickering. Japan and South Korea have stepped up their tit-for-tat, including flirting with the prospect of a bilateral trade war, even as other powers intensify pressure on the region.
The Tokyo-Seoul dispute reached its peak early this month, when Japan said it would curb its exports of key materials needed for South Korea’s giant semiconductor manufacturers, including Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix. Tokyo vaguely attributed the export restriction to Seoul’s inability to exercise adequate control over strategic materials sent to it by the Japanese. The government in Seoul and many outside observers believe the move was retaliation against a South Korean court ruling last year that ordered Japanese companies to compensate Koreans who were forced to work for them when Korea was colonized by Japan during the first half of the 20th century. Japan argues the matter was resolved when the two countries signed an agreement in 1965, under which Japan paid Seoul $800 million in loans and grants as compensation for losses during the colonial period and during World War II. South Korea used the money for its economic development, but never shared any of the funds with the forced laborers themselves.
Even before the export curb, the two countries’ relations had already hit their lowest point since Korea’s liberation from Japan at the end of World War II in 1945. Seoul has repeatedly demanded that Tokyo make a credible apology for its wartime atrocities, including forcing sex slaves — known as “comfort women” — to work for Japanese military brothels. Tokyo insists that is has done enough. In addition, the thorny issue of tiny Dokdo Islands that lie between the two countries has been simmering for decades. South Korea has controlled the island group, which it regards as part of its sovereign territory, since the 1950s — yet Japan insists that the islands belong to it. The incident involving the Russian and Chinese jets, which flew over the area, predictably triggered a fresh quarrel: Japan protested the warning shots fired by South Korea against the jets because it says Seoul has no jurisdiction in the area.
As the two neighbors continue their diplomatic battle, Russia and China carried out their rare joint military exercise as a way of testing the strength of the trilateral military alliance between the United States,, Japan and South Korea — which has been severely weakened, experts worry, by the Seoul-Tokyo feud. Though Moscow denies that its jets flew over the islands, the South Korean government insists that it has evidence showing that the Russian planes violated its airspace. Needless to say, Russia and China are also the two most important supporters of the dictatorship in Pyongyang.
It is difficult to see this new instability in the region in isolation from the Trump administration’s seemingly risky diplomatic game with North Korea. Even as he has alienated several traditional U.S. allies, President Trump has been trying to get closer to dictators, including North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The three Trump-Kim summits created lots of fanfare and headlines, leading the president to claim diplomatic victory. Trump boasts that Pyongyang has not tested another nuclear weapon or launched long-range missiles since he began to talk to Kim. Yet the threat posed by Pyongyang has not diminished in any tangible way, and it has yet to reveal a clear road map for denuclearization. Its latest missile launches add more suspicions about North Korea’s true intentions.
Meanwhile, the Seoul-Tokyo spat shows no signs of easing, and the United States appears indifferent. Japan’s move against Korean semiconductor manufacturers will disrupt the global tech industry supply chain while helping alternative suppliers in China and Taiwan. Yet, Washington shows little interest in mediating. John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, visited the two countries this week but remained neutral. South Koreans are waging a nationwide boycott against Japanese products and some have canceled planned trips to Japan. Now, Tokyo is considering additional trade restrictions against goods imported from South Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seem bent on confronting each other as their political bases continue to support their actions. It is time for the Trump administration to step in and remind them who their real enemies are.