Two powerful Asia nations, with increasing global reach and influence, Japan and South Korea, are engaged in acrimonious conflict. The two nations have a bitter, difficult history. Japan’s long-term occupation of Korea in the 20th century, which continued until 1945, included forced prostitution of Korean women and more general exploitation of the population. Totalitarianism has now faded, but legacies and painful memories continue.
South Korea’s Supreme Court ruled last year that a comprehensive settlement of wartime compensation claims, reached in 1965, does not prevent individuals from seeking reparations. This opened the door for individuals to seek reparations from Japanese companies.
In return, Japan this summer announced that special trade relations with South Korea would end. In the future, Japanese companies will have to make formal application, which can be quite cumbersome, for any technology-related deals with South Korea. Last month, South Korea reciprocated, ending preferential trade for Japan.
Japan’s new barrier took effect near the end of August, generating strong criticism and complaint. Politicians in both countries have exacerbated the situation with provocative, incendiary statements.
The two economies are world leaders in scale, production and overall effectiveness, but are notable for remaining surprisingly separate from another. This directly reflects difficult history.
Just 7.5% of South Korea’s bilateral trade is with Japan, and Japan’s total with South Korea is even smaller: 5.8 %.
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In the midst of this conflict, South Korea President Moon Jae In has made a dramatic, welcome declaration urging a return to cooperation. In mid-August, he took the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the death of South Korea’s great leader Kim Da Jung to underscore the importance of the 1998 Joint Declaration between Japan and South Korea, and the fundamental need for partnership.
Kim’s effectiveness in opposing South Korea’s previous harsh dictatorship marked him as a special target and he survived at least five attempts on his life. One of the most dramatic incidents occurred in 1973, when South Korean government agents kidnapped him from a Tokyo hotel and took him to a ship, where they planned to kill him at sea.
Donald Gregg, the highly experienced U.S. Central Intelligence Agency station chief in South Korea, acted decisively. After a U.S. helicopter flew low over the ship and Gregg intervened personally and skillfully, kidnappers reluctantly released Kim.
Gregg, whose intelligence career dates back to training commandos during the Korean War, later served as U.S. Ambassador to Seoul during the George H.W. Bush administration and more recently provided outstanding professional leadership to the Korea Society based in New York City.
Ambassador Gregg was also national security adviser to Vice President Bush. Most of his career was spent with CIA. He personified the commitment and dedication of career professionals crucial to our success in the Cold War.
Kim’s courage and commitment to representative government were rewarded when this opposition leader was elected President of the Republic of Korea in 1997. Without hesitation, he moved to begin détente with the North Korea totalitarian regime. This culminated in a dramatic summit meeting in 2000 with the leader of North Korea, initiating continuing contacts with the Pyongyang regime.
Very appropriately, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for these efforts.
Arthur I. Cyr is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). Contact email@example.com.