Time for a Seoul-Tokyo peace pact

Time for a Seoul-Tokyo peace pact

I love kimchi and I love ramen. I love the bushido way of life and Japanese humility, and I love South Koreans' resilience and devotion to education that helped them lift their country from poverty after World War II to become an Asian economic powerhouse. And in my opinion, both South Koreans and Japanese are among the nicest people in the world.

So watching the current trade conflict between Japan and Korea is like seeing your best friends fighting. You don't want anyone to win or lose, you just want them to shake hands and make up.

That's why I welcomed the news last Thursday that Japan had approved exports to South Korea of a key material used in making computer chips. Maybe the two sides are ready to talk, I thought. Besides, I am looking to replace my five-year-old phone and I don't want to see the prices driven up by supply-chain problems.

As a gaijin (outsider in Japanese) or waegukin (foreigner in Korean), I will never understand the deeply rooted hatred that some Japanese and Koreans might have for one another. But wounds can heal if both sides decide to patch things up together with mutual respect in mind.

When Hiroshige Seko, Japan's minister of economy, trade and industry, said Tokyo had approved some applications for materials required by South Korean companies including Samsung Electronics, it was the first step in improving bilateral relations. "Maybe Japanese businesses have talked some sense into their politicians," said one of my colleagues and I agree.

Resorting to trade restrictions and bullying, as China and the US have been doing, is so out of character for Japan, one of the few free trade champions left in this increasingly protectionist world. The last thing Asia needs right now, after all the turmoil Washington and Beijing have caused, is for two of its top economies to stop trading with each other. Nothing good can come from that.

At the same time, North Korea is using this opportunity to flex its muscles against the South and the US as Seoul is preoccupied with this newfound trade tension. This tells me that the North is never going to give up its nuclear capability and is simply using Donald Trump to gain more international attention. President Trump, meanwhile, keeps dangling promises of denuclearisation as a way to divert attention from the growing problems he has back home.

But resolving trade tension between South Korea and Japan will be complicated. Much will depend on whether Seoul pursues further efforts to obtain compensation for forced labour and sex slavery during the Japanese occupation from 1910-45. The South Korean Supreme Court has already made one compensation order -- angrily disputed by Japan -- and hundreds more could follow.

What Japanese occupiers did during World War II was atrocious and will remain embedded forever in the national consciousness of every country that was affected, including Thailand. But South Korea has its own dark past. It has never recognised the plight of the Lai Dai Han -- the tens of thousands of children who were the product of rapes committed by South Korean soldiers who fought in Vietnam.

If you keep picking at a wound, the healing process will just take longer. Erecting comfort woman statues in front of Japanese embassies and consulates in Korea and other countries was certainly a step in the wrong direction on the road to reconciliation. But bullying South Korea with trade curbs is equally unhelpful.

Keep in mind that Japan and South Korea formally settled the issue of forced labour and sex slavery with a treaty in 1965, when Japan paid a huge sum of money to help develop the South's economy. And in 1998, then-president Kim Dae-jung accepted the apology of his Japanese counterpart, the late Keizo Obuchi, in the hope that their successors could move forward together.

"Japan and South Korea are neighbours, and we have many difficult issues because of that," Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said last October at an event in Tokyo to commemorate the 1998 joint declaration. "Political leaders need to make big decisions in order to overcome these issues."

Maybe Mr Abe might want to listen to his own words again, and maybe it is time for president Moon Jae-in to listen to South Korean businesses as well. Their friends all across Asia will thank them for rising to the occasion in the name of peace.

Erich Parpart

Senior Reporter - Asia Focus

Senior Reporter - Asia Focus


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