“In a rational world, South Korea and Japan ought to be the best of friends. Their cultures and languages are closely linked. Their economies are deeply entangled. And as the only liberal democracies in East Asia (along with Taiwan), they have to contend with the threat of North Korean belligerence and Chinese domination.
But the world is not so rational, and so the two American allies have recently become engaged in a flaming economic row, ostensibly sparked by historical wrongs. Late last year, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled that Japanese companies should compensate Koreans who were forced to work in Japanese factories and mines during World War II. Assets of major Japanese companies, such as Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, have been seized in South Korea, and they could soon be sold. The Japanese government protested that this matter had already been resolved in 1965, when the two countries reached an agreement claiming to settle “completely and finally” all colonial-era claims in exchange for financial aid and loans from Japan worth $500 million.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan retaliated last month by slapping controls on vital exports to South Korea. He cited reasons of national security, but few believe that. Demonstrators in Seoul then protested against a Japanese “economic invasion,” and the South Korean government threatened to stop sharing military intelligence with Japan.
This latest spat follows many others to do with history: the alleged lack of sincerity in official Japanese apologies for having subjected Korea to brutal colonial rule between 1910 and 1945; fights over revisions to school textbooks that downplay Japan’s wartime aggression; the refusal of conservative Japanese governments to admit that Korean women were systematically recruited to serve as sex slaves of the Japanese Imperial Army.”