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Why Japan-South Korea history disputes keep resurfacing

The old wounds run deep, making a final and lasting agreement on these issues difficult.

South Korean protesters tear a huge Japanese flag during a rally denouncing Japan for its recent trade restrictions against Seoul over wartime slavery disputes, near the Japanese embassy in Seoul on Saturday. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images)

On July 1, Japan placed export restrictions on three chemicals critical to South Korea’s tech industry. Exporters must apply for a license each time they make a shipment, which can take up to 90 days. The Japanese government is also considering removing South Korea from its “white list” of trustworthy countries that receive preferential trade treatment.

The issue, the Japanese government claims, is that South Korea failed to control hydrogen fluoride — which can be used in weapons development — from being shipped to North Korea. South Korea has denied the accusation.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in called this a “grave challenge,” and promised to wean South Korea’s high-tech sector off its dependence on Japanese supplies. South Koreans have also boycotted Japanese goods.

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Some analysts point to Japan’s colonial legacy as one of the roots of these disputes. In July, the South Korean Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling ordering Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate colonial-era forced laborers. And South Koreans argue that Japan has not adequately apologized for the forced sexual slavery of tens of thousands of “comfort women” during World War II.

However, the 1965 Treaty of Basic Relations between Japan and South Korea addressed many these historical grievances, followed by the 1990 Kaifu apology, 1994 Asian Women’s Fund and 2015 comfort women agreement.

Why is this legacy of historical grievances resurfacing?

My research finds that a haphazard reconciliation process and poorly designed agreements have allowed for backsliding. The erosion of trust also makes future negotiations more difficult to achieve. It may take a third-party negotiator, such as the United States, to establish a road map for long-term reconciliation.

Countries enter negotiations with the hope of coming out the “winner,” but also assume that agreements are binding. However, when both parties violate the spirit of agreements without tangible costs, rocky diplomacy follows. South Korea, for instance, reneged on the 2015 agreement. In Japan, the Abe administration in Japan resorted to strong-arm economic tactics such as the recent trade restrictions on materials critical to the South Korean economy as a response to the recent Supreme Court ruling.

The Japanese government argues the 1965 treaty settled all war debts, and any future disagreements would be resolved bilaterally. Included in this agreement was $800 million ($6.5 billion adjusted for inflation) in economic aid — $300 million ($2.43 billion adjusted for inflation) of which were outright grants — amounting to over a quarter of South Korea’s GDP at the time.

But many South Koreans believe this wasn’t fair because they think the nation had no choice but to accept the agreement. It was not until 2005 that declassified documents revealed the full terms of the 1965 agreement. President Park Chung-hee did not use the funds to compensate victims directly, as suggested by Japan, but instead invested the capital into the economy. Although this helped jump-start South Korea’s economic development, the lack of transparency and Park’s legacy of authoritarian policies led many Koreans to believe that it was a government-to-government agreement that did not properly compensate the victims.

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The treaty also did not state the funds were compensation for Japan’s wartime aggression; they were a goodwill gesture to reestablish relations. Subsequent apologies were equally as vague concerning Japan’s moral and legal responsibility.

The 2015 agreement included a more direct apology but did not articulate how and when the agreement was to be implemented, or outline penalties for subsequent violations of the agreement. A point of contention was Japan’s request to have a comfort women statue erected by Korean NGOs removed from the front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

Japan assumed the statue would be removed, but President Park Geun-hye had no plan to do so, and was impeached a year later. President Moon immediately challenged the legitimacy of the 2015 agreement, commissioned a report to outline its flaws and urged Japan to “accept the truth and apologize with a sincere heart.”

Japan saw these moves as violations of diplomatic norms, given that three-quarters of the comfort women have agreed to accept compensation from the Japan-funded and Korea-run Reconciliation and Healing Foundation established in the 2015 comfort women agreement.

What happens now?

Japan has issued ad hoc apologies, generally designed to stem the criticisms of the moment, rather than fulfill a long-term reconciliation road map.

The Korean public considers previous apologies and agreements illegitimate because comfort women and forced laborers were left out of the negotiation process. But Japan refuses to accept nonstate level negotiations, concerned about opening the door to countless lawsuits and the relitigation of previous agreements. Japan has urged South Korea to agree to arbitration to settle any disputes related to the war, as outlined in the 1965 agreement.

The U.S., many analysts believe, is in a unique position to act as a third-party negotiator by facilitating negotiations, assisting with confidence-building measures and constructing a future-oriented road map.

Trump’s trip to Japan reveals some mixed signals

President Trump is no fan of international travel, but has made three trips to Asia to address the North Korean nuclear crisis and devoted considerable attention to U.S. economic and security relationships with China, Japan and South Korea. Moreover, Moon and Abe have shown incredible deference to Trump. The president recently expressed exasperation at the prospect of another major negotiation but said he is willing to assist two leaders he likes, if asked.

In February, South Korea National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang called on Japanese Emperor Akihito to personally apologize to the comfort women, claiming that “one word will resolve matters once and for all.” It’s likely Japan had little reason to believe such a claim since the 2015 agreement was supposed to solve the comfort women issue “finally and irreversibly.”

This latest salvo suggests that modern-day grievances between South Korea and Japan continue to run deep — and touch on old wounds. No agreement is final, irreversible or “once and for all.” South Korea and Japan, however, can weather periods of dispute by crafting an agreement that educates the public, acknowledges past apologies, emphasizes 54 years of increased interdependence and establishes anniversary events to renew the commitment to the peace process.

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Tom Le is an assistant professor of politics at Pomona College. He is on Twitter at @profTLe.