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Wednesday 30 October 2019

Japan-South Korea tension sees a ray of hope

Ashraf Qureshi. 

The protracted Japan-South Korea tension is finally seeing a thaw after straining the region’s economy and shaking an alliance that aims to keep a check on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.  

Reuters, quoting the Japanese news agency Kyodo, reported that the military and diplomatic partners intend to study plans for a joint economic program to rekindle the progress they had made under close cooperation since an attempt to bury their pasts in a 1965 treaty. 

Although government officials from both sides have refuted the news, the discussion around it has raised hopes of a possible patch up. The unmanned source from South Korean foreign ministry that denied these plans, however, confirmed the existence of communication between them to cool off the tensions.  

The joint economic program 

As per the details revealed so far, the formation of a joint plan was being considered for companies from both countries to push economic progress. Japanese believe that compensation for South Korea’s forced-laborers from World War II is presently not on the cards. To address the sensitive issue, instead of issuing compensation for the laborers, a fund is being considered to spur economic cooperation.  

The fund is to be set up by the South Korean government and businesses where Japanese companies would participate to ease the economic tensions. This will provide a face-saving for both countries against their rigid stances over their historical issues. At the same time, it will allow them to address their present economic challenges. 

Flare in the tension

Raw nerves received a jolt last year when the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to compensate some of the laborers. Things quickly got out of hand as nationalist sentiments flared in both countries, resulting in a progressive escalation that has left their partners worried. 

Japan believes that under the 1965 treaty with South Korea, all financial issues pertaining to the forced-labor in World War II have been settled, leaving no further option for their compensation. South Koreans, however, consider the terms of that agreement unfair and not adequately prepared by the leadership of that time. 

South Korean Supreme Court’s decision followed an economic response from Japan, restricting high-tech exports to South Korea. 

With several of its high-value industries under existential threat, South Korea raised the issue to a strategic level by announcing that it does not intend to renew General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), a pact that allows information sharing among the two on North Korea’s nuclear and missile activity. 

GSOMIA has been in place since 2016 and will be expiring this November. The possibility of its non-renewal has also left the United States worried as it relied upon the agreement to keep a check on North Korea. 

There have been several protests in both countries over the latest standoff and businesses that operated across borders are suffering. Already causing social misunderstandings, it can spiral into creating waves at the global level. 

A fragile but strategic alliance

The Japan-South Korea tension has placed the spotlight on the two allies’ effective check so far on North Korean militaristic designs. With even China taking a cautious approach to Pyongyang’s ambitions and using its influence on Kim Jong Un to bring it to the table with US President Donal Trump, the alliance is extremely significant. 

Japan and South Korea have long been playing the good-cop-bad-cop. Japanese approach has been to increase the pressure on North Korea. Whereas South Korea – understandably, because of the divided families over the border and more social closeness with the North – adopts a more reconciliatory attitude. Both have been equally effective. 

Post Cold War geopolitics of Asia have considerably changed with the economic rise of China. The world, as well as the Asia-Pacific, is no more divided on communist-capitalist lines. Today, South Korea finds itself closer to China than it does to Japan. Its interests are increasingly aligning with China’s maritime silk route that offers greater connectivity and better integration with global supply chains. 

Japan’s long term strategic partner, the United States, is receding into its own borders. Trump administration’s policies of discontinuing America’s role as the world’s policeman and incidents of appalling abandonment of its allies have left countries like Japan looking for alternative balancing measures. 

In such a scenario, South Korea and Japan’s willingness to partner with each other may have diminished, yet the talk of a joint economic program is an encouraging development. It will reduce the effects of an already slowing global economy, improve the region’s security and help them to bury their contentious past. 

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