• Jiwoo Jeong

The Overshadowed Trade War

Since Donald Trump’s administration came into power, tensions between the U.S. and China have escalated into a trade war. As this conflict pertains to two of the world’s largest economies, media coverage has been deservingly widespread. However, another important trade war has not received the same attention: the trade war between South Korea and Japan.

The trigger of this trade war appears to have been the initial South Korean Supreme Court ruling on October 30th, 2018. The court decided that four workers who had been forced into labour for Japanese companies during World War II must be compensated (Nagumo). Japan claims that compensations have been resolved by the treaty established in 1965, which was meant to improve bilateral ties (Nagumo). Discussions leading up to the signing of the 1965 treaty were met with the June 3 Resistance Movement from the South Korean side. However under US duress, martial law was introduced to suppress the protests and the treaty was enacted (White). The treaty is heavily criticized because it was signed when South Korea had weaker leverage, along with the added pressure from the US for the two countries to normalize relations (White). The South Korean court had ruled that the 1965 treaty does not forfeit the right of an individual to seek compensation (Nagumo). As such, this difference of interpretation has led to further hostility between the two countries on top of a relationship that was already tense due to the legacies of the war.

Following the court ruling, on July 1st Japan imposed restrictions on materials needed for semiconductor production, which is vital to South Korea’s economy, as it is home to key suppliers like Samsung (Lee). The export restriction was a thinly veiled retaliation against the court ruling, which the Japanese say was imposed due to vague national security concerns about how the chemicals are being used (Kim).

This blatant economic attack on a crucial South Korean industry was met with animosity. Boycotting Japanese imports caught on like wildfire and is still aflame. Furthermore, provocative connotations continue to fuel the national sentiment. Just recently, Uniqlo was under fire for mocking those who were forced into sexual servitude during the Japanese occupation (Cha). In their ad, Iris Apfel, who is ninety-seven years-old, is asked how she used to dress as a teenager and she responds saying, “I can’t remember that far back!”. However, in the Korean version of the ad, the subtitles can be translated to “Gosh! How can I remember something that goes back eighty years?” In this sensitive climate, the ad’s reference to not being able to recall something that happened eighty years ago did not sit well with the public. Eighty years ago, Korea was under Japanese occupation. Those who white-wash or deny the atrocities that happened against sex slaves discredit survivors’ testimonies by questioning their ability to accurately remember details of the events.

Responses in Japan regarding this trade war have been mixed. An editorial published by the Asahi Shimbun critiques the Japanese news media for taking on anti-Korea stances in order to garner attention, stating, “efforts by the two governments to galvanize public support, as well as the media’s moves to follow their lead, are creating a growing and dangerous drumbeat of accusations against the other side” (The Asahi Shimbun). For their part, the critiqued media has been spewing hateful sentiment such as “Goodbye to Annoying Neighbor, We Don’t Need South Korea,” and writing articles titled “‘Pathology of the South Koreans,’ who cannot control anger” (The Asahi Shimbun).

It is clear that the main contributing factor to this trade war has been emotional disagreement due to unsettled discussions of inconvenient topics. Whenever this topic arises, the demands for an apology always receive the response that it has already been addressed by the 1965 treaty. Apologies and compensations have been made previously. However, do they excuse actions and statements made thereafter which are contradictory? Claims that proper reparation measures have been established are coupled with actions that question the integrity of the apologies: Japan’s Prime Ministers make recurrent visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where tributes are paid to soldiers who committed atrocities against South Korea during the war (Lies). Further, demands arise to censor work that symbolize sex slaves (Snow). The first step towards mending the relationship may be through an unequivocal apology where nothing is said or done afterwards that challenges its sincerity.


Cha, Sangmi. "Uniqlo Ad Sparks Protest, Parody as South Korea-Japan Dispute Flares." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 22 Oct. 2019. Web. 27 Oct. 2019.

"EDITORIAL: Hateful Media Comments about S. Korea Do More Harm than Good:The Asahi Shimbun." The Asahi Shimbun. N.p., 17 Sept. 2019. Web. 31 Oct. 2019.

Lee, YenNee. "The Japan-South Korea Dispute Could Push up the Price of Your next Smartphone." CNBC. CNBC, 23 July 2019. Web. 27 Oct. 2019.

Lies, Elaine. "Japan PM Abe Sends Offering to Yasukuni Shrine for War Dead: Kyodo." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 15 Aug. 2019. Web. 27 Oct. 2019.

Kim, Catherine. "The Escalating Trade War between South Korea and Japan, Explained." Vox. Vox, 09 Aug. 2019. Web. 27 Oct. 2019.

Nagumo, Jada. "Five Things to Know about South Korea's Wartime Labor Ruling." Nikkei Asian Review. Nikkei Asian Review, 30 Oct. 2018. Web. 27 Oct. 2019.

Snow, Nancy. "War-themed Artwork Row Reflects Free Speech Tensions in Japan." Nikkei Asian Review. Nikkei Asian Review, 31 Oct. 2019. Web. 31 Oct. 2019.

White, Edward. "Divided by History: Why Japan-South Korea Ties Have Soured." Financial Times. Financial Times, 24 Oct. 2019. Web. 31 Oct. 2019.

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