Originally Published in the December 2019 Journal, Breaking the Silence, Pg. 26
Tensions over colonial history between Japan and South Korea are at an all-time high. In August, government officials in South Korea decided to withdraw from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), an agreement between the two countries facilitating military information exchanges, specifically focused on North Korea and its nuclear missile programs. While the intelligence agreement has given the two countries leverage against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a rise in South Korean nationalism prompted populist-backed politicians to back out of this pivotal agreement, rendering the Republic of Korea highly vulnerable to the DPRK. A breakdown of the Japanese-South Korean alliance would lead to the collapse of the main security apparatus in Northeast Asia and leave North Korea free to exert unrestrained influence in the region. South Korea should work to dissolve unreasonable tensions with Japan and renew the GSOMIA agreement, since the country’s security relies heavily on a Japan-Korea alliance. This will allow South Korea to prioritize more pressing economic and security threats from China and North Korea.
Japan and South Korea have two distinct explanations for why GSOMIA broke down. Japanese officials alleged that South Korean companies transported chemicals, imported from Japan, to North Korea. As a result, the Japanese government restricted the export of three chemicals to South Korea. The intent for the export regulations was clear: Tokyo officials have consistently requested that South Korea explain its demand for such large sums of those three chemicals, only to be ignored by South Korean importers who refused to hear their concerns. However, South Korean officials have maintained that the regulation of the three chemicals, vital ingredients for companies like Samsung Electronics Co., was a direct retaliation for the 2018 Supreme Court ruling for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay reparations for its use of South Korean “comfort women” — who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army — as well as forced labor. Yet South Korea fails to acknowledge an earlier case for such reparations made in 1965 by former President Park Chung-hee, which saw Japan pay $800 million USD in reparations to permanently settle the issue of war crimes during World War II. The compensation eventually fueled the South Korean economy to the point of transitioning its status to that of a developed country, giving rise to numerous Korean conglomerates (most notably Samsung) that were able to compete in foreign markets.
In recent years, however, protestors in South Korea have demanded further compensation, arguing that the prior reparations only reached the government of South Korea at the time as opposed to directly helping victims of the war. Even with compensation of the 1965 Treaty, a subsequent treaty was established by President Park Geun-hye allowing South Korea to receive $10 million for comfort women survivors and numerous apologies from the Japanese government. The Minjoo Party of Korea, the leftist party of Moon Jae-in, has asked for renegotiations and a “sincere apology,” calling the recent compensation deal a “terrible agreement” due to the supposed lack of sincerity in Japan’s apology and the sense of entitlement for more compensation. Following the series of controversies surrounding former Japanese war crimes, the chemical export regulation led to an unnecessary backlash by South Koreans, who began to boycott Japanese products and travels. Amid popular South Korean resentment against Japanese practices, populist South Korean politicians, fueled by anti-Japanese mob mentality, have amassed support through their endeavor to “not back down” against Japan. The next stage of the conflict led to the Japanese removal of South Korea from their export whitelist of preferred trading partners, which inevitably led to Korea’s subsequent removal of Japan from their own whitelist.
The rise of ethnic nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment has led many South Koreans towards the path of self-destruction. To many Koreans, shared ethnic and cultural identity trumps shared political ideology, and the history between the two countries has deterred numerous South Koreans from engaging in peace-building with the Japanese. Politicians fueled by such populist mentality have harnessed it in their campaigns at the expense of South Korean security concerns, as shown in the recent advent of a North Korean nuclear missile crisis. In a survey conducted by Asan Institute for Policy Studies, South Koreans viewed Kim Jong-un more favorably than Abe Shinzo. Furthermore, according to a Gallup poll by the Korean Research Center, soon after the meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Moon Jae-in, 78 percent of South Korean respondents stated that they “trusted” Kim Jong-un. South Korean disparities of trust between Japanese and North Koreans became more apparent as the general Korean population affirmed their support for the Inter-Korean Open Rail Project in December 2018 while opposing the plan to build the Japan-Korea Undersea Tunnel.
South Korea’s survival in the international arena is wholly dependent on its military and economic alliance with Japan. Resolutions of historical enmities are necessary, and such actions would serve as a baseline for progress. Without a consolidated partnership between the two countries, Japan and South Korea would eventually face decreasing economic leverage compared to the increasingly influential Chinese economy along with an unsolvable security concern from North Korea. The renewal of GSOMIA is merely the first step in easing its tensions and re-establishing ties with a long-forgotten enemy; thus, addressing the common enemy across the Korean Demilitarized Zone must be the priority of both nations.