From enemies, to partners, and now back to being on tough terms, Japan and South Korea have been walking on thin ice for decades. To this day, disputes over historical issues rooted during the Japanese colonization period of South Korea are affecting the economic and political relationship of both countries. Tensions have escalated quickly after the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration issued amendments to their export regulation policy that specifically put South Korean companies in a position of disadvantage. The South Korean economy is now in a risky position, and this time, the citizens of South Korea are filled with rage.
On July 1, an unexpected update on export regulations policy by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) of Japan put restrictions on certain materials essential for South Korea in manufacturing semiconductors and smartphones. With high-tech manufacturing being one of the primary industries in South Korea, the country’s economy took a heavy blow after the sanction. Stocks of South Korean semiconductor-specializing companies, such as Samsung and SK Hynix, plummeted after the restriction. Considering the fact that these companies play a huge role in the South Korean economy, Japan’s new regulation could hurt South Korea’s economic status.
In addition to the export control, the Japanese government has stated its plan to remove South Korea from its white list in August. Japan divides its trading countries into two groups: “white countries” and “black countries.” The countries on its white list are close trading allies that can side-step export regulations whereas the countries on the black list have to go through a lengthy process of up to 90 days when trading. The removal of South Korea seems targeted and implies a more personal agenda against South Korea, amplifying the political tension between the two countries.
▲ List of Japanese Brands Boycotted. Provided by Hokto Kinoko Company.
Validity Behind Reasons
According to the Japanese government, this sudden amendment has been made for security reasons. Prime Minister Abe stated that the government had lost its trust in South Korea and could no longer rely on the South Korean government. Further explanation of this reasoning has not been given and specific details behind the export control have not been provided otherwise. Seeing as South Korea was not given an acceptable reason, it can only be assumed on their part that the motives behind Prime Minister Abe’s decision were related to Japan and South Korea’s tumultuous past.
Prime Minister Abe has also mentioned other issues, including the Japanese government’s refusal to obey the ruling in 2018 by the South Korean Supreme Court, which required the Japanese firms to compensate the Korean victims of forced labor during the Japanese colonization period. During that era, a large number of South Koreans were forced to engage in manufacturing ships and aircrafts for Japanese companies. 70 years later, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered the companies to compensate the South Koreans for their forced labor. However, the Japanese government claimed that all disputes regarding labor issues have already been settled in the past, thereby exempting Japan from fulfilling the Supreme Court’s ruling.
▲ President Moon Jae In and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Provided by Huffington Post Korea.
National Retaliation Full of Rage
On July 15, South Korean merchants staged a rally and thousands of citizens signed petitions posted on the presidential Blue House website calling for boycotts of Japanese products. Japan abusing its leverage in trade stoked public anger as there have been speculations on whether this sudden restriction was placed as a form of economic revenge in light of their historical disputes.
As a form of retaliation, there has been a long list of Japanese brands circulating online, encouraging citizens to stop purchasing those brands. The Korean Supermarkets Alliance, an organization representing more than 23,000 stores across the nation, claimed that it would temporarily halt the sales of Japanese products in their markets. In addition, cancellation of flights to Japan from South Korea increased dramatically as part of the boycott. According to the Japan Tourism Agency, South Koreans make up 13 percent of spending as foreign tourists in Japan, meaning that this boycott will inevitably take a toll on Japan’s tourism industry.
▲ Boycott Japan Poster. Provided by Pinterest.
The boycott in South Korea against Japanese products itself may not see a phenomenal change in political tension, but considering its heavy weight on social influence as well as importance to South Korean citizens, it would be hard for Japan to completely ignore the noise that has been stirred.
Future for South Korea
The Japanese press Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) reported that “The Japanese government intends to request the appropriate management of raw materials through this opportunity.” It further emphasized that it may be possible that the list of regulated items will be extended. As far as the current regulation is concerned, the Japanese government seems stubborn with their decision and it does not seem like the tensions are going to be relieved any time soon.
On the other hand, the unstable position of the South Korean economy after the export control indicates a heavy reliance on Japan. “The Korean government should take the opportunity to lower the level of dependence on the Japanese economy,” said Chung DongYoung, a politician of the Democratic Peace Party. It does seem more realistic to be aware of the fact that the South Korean economy is vulnerable to decisions made overseas and develop economic independence.
It is without a doubt that the citizens of South Korea are filled with rage and the boycotts that are taking place do not seem like they are going to die down as of now. However, relying on the boycotts to move the Japanese government would be a naive thing to do. Taking this event as an opportunity to reexamine foreign relations and look back at the stability of the domestic economy would benefit the country in the long run. For now, however, South Korea is in for another long journey.