South Korea is seeking compensation for the victims of forced labour, as Japan restricts the export of key chemicals to Seoul.
June 22 is the 54th anniversary of the treaty signed between Japan and South Korea to normalise diplomatic ties. Yet the anniversary only serves to highlight the continuing tensions between the two states.
The 1965 treaty reinstated ties between Tokyo and Seoul. Another document, the agreement on the settlement of problems concerning property and claims and on economic co-operation, was signed on the same day. It ensured that Japan would pay $500 million to Korea in loans and grants to compensate for its historic abuses.
It also stated: “[The] problem concerning property, rights and interests of the two Contracting Parties and their nationals (including juridical persons) and concerning claims between the Contracting Parties and their nationals ... is settled completely and finally.”
The countries have of course found that the problems were not “settled completely and finally”.
Korea, colonised by imperial Japan between 1910 and 1945, has a history of being exploited by the empire. In addition to sex slaves for Japanese soldiers, euphemistically called “comfort women”, Korea also had citizens conscripted by the Japanese to supply forced labour. It is this issue that is at the forefront of the current debate now.
Last autumn, South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled against two Japanese companies, ordering them to pay compensation to Korean victims who were forced to work for Japan during World War Two. According to Japan, the 1965 treaty has already settled these claims, despite the Korean victims not receiving any of the loan or grant money given by the Japanese to South Korea in 1965, nor giving their blessing to the agreement.
On July 4, Japan started restricting the export of three specialised chemicals to South Korea. These chemicals are used to make semiconductors and smartphones. Japan happens to be the biggest supplier for the manufacture of chips, while South Korea is the biggest manufacturer.
Japanese officials say the new rules are not an export ban but rather, as The Economist calls it, “the reimposition of controls on sensitive materials that had grown lax”.
Many argue that the line of reasoning is weak.
Japan’s claim that one of the chemicals, hydrogen fluoride, was shipped to North Korea by South Korea, has been vehemently denied by South Korea. (Hydrogen fluoride can be used to make chemical weapons).
Amidst escalating tensions between Japan and South Korea, the United States has announced that National Security Advisor John Bolton will be visiting Japanese and South Korean authorities this week. Bolton left the US on Saturday.
According to US President Donald Trump, South Korean President Moon Jae-in had asked for US involvement in the trade dispute that seemed unlikely to wane. Moon’s spokeswoman confirmed that he had asked Trump for help in Seoul at their summit on June 30.