Seoul and Tokyo -- both of them democracies, market economies and US allies -- this month removed each other from their lists of favoured trading partners
Seoul (AFP) - A spiralling trade row between Japan and South Korea is being driven more by emotion than economic factors, analysts say, with leaders of the US allies risking their security ties for domestic political considerations, to Washington’s consternation.
Seoul and Tokyo – both of them democracies and market economies – this month removed each other from their lists of favoured trading partners.
That came after Japan imposed restrictions on exports crucial to tech giants such as Samsung, the world’s biggest smartphone and memory chip maker, citing security issues, which raised worries over global supply chains.
The relationship between the neighbours has long been strained by issues stemming from Japan’s brutal colonisation of the peninsula in the first half of the 20th century.
The latest moves followed a series of South Korean court rulings ordering Japanese firms to pay for forced labour – an issue Tokyo says was resolved under the 1965 treaty normalising their relations.
South Koreans have since mounted a widespread boycott that has seen sales of Japanese cars plunge more than 30 percent and forced several airlines to suspend routes to their neighbour because of falling demand.
Some lawmakers have pushed for a boycott of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and a travel ban on the country, citing supposed radiation risks from the Fukushima disaster eight years ago.
A news anchor was even forced to clarify on-air that his pen was locally-made after a suspicious viewer called to complain that the implement looked Japanese.
Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun said in an editorial that both sides had “fallen into a negative spiral of blaming each other, apparently while keeping domestic sentiment in mind”, warning the two governments that it was “highly risky to instigate nationalism”.
Nearly seven out of 10 South Koreans still harbour negative feelings towards Japan and President Moon Jae-in regularly highlights past history.
The South “will never again lose to Japan”, he said this week, thanking the public for countering Tokyo’s actions with “one heart” in an apparent endorsement of the boycott.
For his part Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a conservative nationalist whose grandfather was a wartime minister, harbours ambitions to revise his country’s pacifist constitution and has repeatedly said Japan need not continually apologise for its past actions.
Troy Stangarone, senior director at the Korea Economic Institute, pointed out that Japan’s first measures came ahead of an upper house election while Seoul will hold a parliamentary vote in April.
“Taking a hard line appeals to key constituents in both countries, so compromise may be more difficult to achieve until passions have dissipated,” he told AFP.
- ‘Soul searching’ -
Now Seoul is threatening to terminate a military information-sharing agreement with Tokyo that gives it access to intelligence gathered by Japan’s sophisticated surveillance satellites, to the alarm of Washington and the delight of nuclear-armed North Korea.
Pyongyang – which has launched four pairs of projectiles over the past two weeks – regularly denounces Japan over wartime history in vitriolic terms.
The US has voiced frustration over the actions of its key Asian allies, underlining their shared regional challenges.
“We believe that some soul searching is in order about political decisions that have damaged bilateral trust,” said Marc Knapper, deputy assistant secretary of state for Japan and Korea.
“Calm, confident words from national leaders, we believe, will generate a similar response for their nations,” he told the Heritage Foundation think-tank.
There are no indications either side might soon comply.
In an editorial, the Korea Herald said that politicians from Moon down were “fanning the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment to take advantage of it for their own political gain”.
And Hidehiko Mukoyama, senior economist at Japan Research Institute, said Abe had been facing growing frustration within his Liberal Democratic Party over South Korea.
“Something had to be done to take the steam out. The prime minister perhaps needed to show a strong stance to unite the party.”
But Tokyo had miscalculated the South Korean reaction, he added. “It appears that this is moving in the opposite direction from what the Japanese government seemed to have expected.”
And the South Korea-Japan row is not the only example of the phenomenon, analysts point out.
The two countries themselves have been hit by the fallout from the US-China trade war, which threatens to undermine the global economy that both of them are integrally connected to.
“Unfortunately, the weaponisation of trade is quickly becoming a feature rather than an exception to international trade,” said Stangarone.
“Each time a country uses national security as an excuse to use economic coercion to achieve another objective, international trade rules and national security are weakened.”