Japan and South Korea’s monthslong trade dispute shows no signs of abating any time soon. Japan’s decision last week to grant permission for exports of photoresist, a material used in the manufacture of semiconductors, to South Korea may give the impression that the two are on the path to resolving their spat. But that’s far from the case.
The dispute began with South Korean demands for compensation for abuses inflicted during Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula. In response to South Korea’s seizure of Japanese corporate assets in January, which would be used as payment for wartime forced labor, Japan instituted a new, onerous process for approving exports of photoresist, hydrogen fluoride and fluorinated polyimide to South Korea – one that requires submitting up to nine supporting documents for every new shipment and a review process that can take up to 90 days. The deeper problem, however, is that Japan’s attempt to rap South Korea over the knuckles may not have the intended effect. In the short term, Japan can inflict a great deal of pain on South Korea. In the long term, Japan has ensured that South Korea will be looking for ways to end its dependence on all things Japanese.
A Fraught History
Japan and Korea have a long history, fraught with Japanese violence against and condescension toward the Korean people. During the 16th century, three successive Japanese leaders embarked on a violent campaign to unify the Japanese islands. The second of these men, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, is generally credited with having unified the islands by the end of the 1580s. But that wasn’t enough for Hideyoshi. He began to dream of an empire that would encompass present-day North and South Korea, China, the Philippines, Taiwan and Goa. Hideyoshi intended to start with Ming China, and the best way to get to there was through the Korean Peninsula. So in 1592, he deployed 158,000 men to Korea (then known as the Joseon kingdom), where his soldiers made quick work of the Koreans until the Ming army crossed the Yalu River and fought the Japanese to a stalemate. A second invasion, made up of 140,000 troops, in 1597 did not achieve victory either, though its stragglers returned to Japan with the severed noses of at least 38,000 Koreans and Chinese killed during the campaign, a collection of war trophies commemorated by the Mimizuka shrine in Kyoto today.
These invasions were the beginning of more than 400 years of the Korean Peninsula’s suffering at the hands of foreign powers. They’re also the foundation of Korean grievances against the Japanese. Future Japanese rulers, including Hideyoshi’s successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, sought to repair Japan’s relationship with Korea. But nothing Japan did in the intervening centuries erased the collective memory of struggle for the Korean people. A few decades after Hideyoshi’s invasions, the Korean Peninsula faced new depredations following the collapse of China’s Ming dynasty. Sixteenth-century Korea looked to China as both an economic and cultural center, while China looked at Korea as a loyal and dependent ally. Unfortunately for both, the costs of China’s defense of Korea from Japan exacerbated a brewing political crisis in present-day Manchuria. Groups of Jurchen tribesmen rebelled against Ming rule and would eventually declare their own Qing dynasty in 1636, leading to the Ming Emperor’s ouster in 1644.
But before the Qing ruled China, they invaded the Joseon kingdom – in retaliation for its loyalty to the Ming Emperor – and made an example of the Koreans. Korea never blamed this state of affairs, which would remain in place until 1895, on China. The Qing dynasty was always seen as fundamentally illegitimate, a barbarian usurpation of Confucian political power. In that sense, Korean attitudes toward China have always been softer than attitudes toward Japan, despite the fact that the Chinese and Japanese both viewed the Korean Peninsula as their sphere of influence – and used violence to keep it that way.
This history is the backdrop for the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and the subsequent Japanese annexation of the Korean Peninsula in 1910. Like Hideyoshi’s 16th century invasion, the Sino-Japanese War was essentially a conflict over the status of the Korean Peninsula. At the end of the 19th century, while the Qing dynasty was on the verge of collapse and China was being exploited by foreign powers, Japan was at the peak of the Meiji Restoration and dreaming of a Pacific Empire once more. If not for American, British and German recognition of Korean independence in 1883, Japan might well have invaded Korea before 1894. By then, however, Japan felt strong enough to end China’s dominant position in Korea once and for all. In 1894, a popular Korean rebellion by a fringe religious sect called the Tong-Haks marched on Seoul. Historian Fred Arthur McKenzie has suggested the Tong-Haks were supported and armed by Japan, which hoped to use the uprising as a pretext for invasion. Whether or not this is true, the Korean government called on China for help, and once the Chinese dispatched troops to the Korean Peninsula, Japan had its pretext for war.
Japan routed China in the Sino-Japanese War, obliterating the Chinese navy, seizing the port of Lushun and crossing the Yalu River itself this time. At this point, Japan began its quest to remake Korea in its own image. Japan, after all, had just undergone the Meiji Restoration and could credibly claim to be the only Asian power capable of standing up to the West. To do this, it had to break the corrupt and antiquated Korean political system. When the Korean queen conspired to thwart Japan’s efforts, Japan simply had her killed. What began as a Japanese quest to eliminate Chinese influence on the Korean Peninsula and bring political reform to Korea ended with the increasingly brutal Japanese rule of the Korean Peninsula. It was at this time, with the Qing dynasty on the verge of collapse, that Russia also saw an opportunity to establish its primacy in Manchuria and perhaps even in northern Korea. Japan moved quickly, becoming the first Asian power to defeat a Western one in the modern age.
This was especially bad news for Korea. In a decade, Japan succeeded in defeating and humiliating the two other regional heavyweights that could have balanced out Japanese power. With Russia and China eliminated as rivals, and with the British and the Americans unwilling to intervene on Korea’s behalf, Japan decided it was time to solve its Korea problem once and for all. At the time, Japanese strategists had come to believe that control of the Korean Peninsula was crucial to strengthening the Japanese Empire. Toyokichi Iyenaga, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States, wrote in 1912 that, “From the strategic standpoint, Korea is to the Japanese Empire as a spear pointed at its heart. Whatever nation holds this weapon becomes supremely important to Japan.”
Japan’s intention when it formally annexed Korea in 1910 was to make sure no country could ever point that spear at Japan’s heart again. During the occupation, Japan brought modernity to Korea. Between 1909 and 1913, Korea’s foreign trade tripled and its rice production increased by 25 percent. Japan established a judicial system, a monetary system based on the gold standard and a system of public education. It also built railroads, sewers, highways and telegraphs. There was just one problem: In the words of historian Clarence Gilliland, Japan’s ultimate goal was “to crush out knowledge and memory of the history and institutions of Korea and in its place to instill a national patriotism for Japan.” In this sense, Imperial Japan was a far more destructive external influence than China. China treated Korea like a vassal state – but did not try to wipe out Korea’s distinctiveness. Japan, on the other hand, looked at the Koreans as a less evolved version of its own people – and sought to transform them to resemble the Japanese. It backfired. Japan’s heavy-handed rule triggered a renewed emphasis on Korean identity and gave rise to a strong sense of Korean nationalism. What began as an attempt to modernize Korea slowly gave way to 35 years of Japanese imperialism – a period over which South Korea and Japan are still fighting today.
This is an oversimplified account of Japanese-Korean relations, but the history is critical in understanding just how deep the enmity between the Japanese and Korean people runs. It is also key in understanding what’s happening between South Korea and Japan today. Their dispute is not about Japan’s domination of the Korean Peninsula in 1910-45, nor is it about compensation for conscripted labor or so-called “comfort women.” These are simply the most recent examples in a long list of grievances. Japan, the cause of so much of Korea’s misery, is today the third-largest economy in the world and a unified and cohesive nation that has enjoyed the full protection of the U.S. military and the benefit of U.S. technology transfer over the past seven decades. The Korean Peninsula, on the other hand, remains divided not by the Koreans’ own choice but because foreign powers like Japan used Korea as a pawn. From Seoul’s perspective, when it asks Japan to show remorse, it is met with Japanese arrogance and threats that it could be cut off from the world’s top source of fluorinated polyimide, etching gas (which includes hydrogen fluoride) and photoresists, upon which South Korean manufacturers depend.
The comparisons to the U.S.-China trade war are obvious. In that dispute, too, there is a dominant party that can inflict more damage on the other than vice versa. What China has in spades, however, is resilience, developed in part through the historical memory of how the U.S. and other Western powers deprived China of unity and wealth in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are still internal disagreements in China about whether the country should try to rise peacefully without antagonizing the United States or whether conflict with the United States is simply inevitable. Chinese policymakers who believed that the U.S. and China could coexist as relatively equal powers are now being drowned out by those warning that China must prepare for the inevitable American backlash that will come from its increased economic, political and military might, no matter how peacefully it is couched. The same is true in the Japan-South Korea relationship. Japan has a greater ability to inflict damage on South Korea’s economy than vice versa. But South Korea has reservoirs of historical memory to draw upon to resist Japan’s moves no matter how long Japan wants to block its products from reaching South Korea.
South Korea and Japan both have mutual defense treaties with the United States, but not with each other – the United States has historically brokered peace between them in what some might call geostrategic marriage counseling. Indeed, the U.S. had to twist South Korea’s arm just to get Seoul to agree to share intelligence with Japan on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and other Pacific matters, an arrangement that now seems precarious at best. In fact, for all of South Korea and Japan’s overlapping interests, they have one fundamental strategic divergence. Japan wants a neutralized Korean Peninsula. And so long as the Korean Peninsula is divided between an economically dependent country and a malnourished hermit kingdom run by a despot, Japan is satisfied, especially with the U.S. commitment to defend its allies from North Korean aggression. South Korea’s ultimate goal, on the other hand, is unification with the North and a restoration of Korean independence, which has eluded the peninsula for generations. In the short term, unification with North Korea may seem impossible, and indeed, President Moon Jae-in’s administration is more enthusiastic about the possibility than the South Korean political opposition has been. Ultimately, however, the Korean people are a single people, and their division is unnatural. There is an overwhelming force driving the two countries back together – one that Japan in particular has always sought to thwart.
Moon alluded to this force after a cabinet meeting last week, when he said, “The advantage Japan’s economy has over us is the size of its economy and domestic market. If the South and North could create a peace economy through economic cooperation, we can catch up with Japan’s superiority in one burst.” This remarkable statement generated quite a buzz in South Korea – the Chosun Ilbo published an op-ed aptly titled, “Has Moon Left the Planet?” – but it should be no surprise that Moon’s long-term vision is to unite the Korean Peninsula. A peacefully unified Korean Peninsula would obviate the need to maintain a security relationship with the U.S., which Washington appears hell-bent on making South Korea foot the bill for. It would greatly strengthen Korea’s position relative to Japan, and perhaps even allow Seoul a freer hand in dealing with Japanese and U.S. competitors like Russia and China. It should also come as little surprise that South Korea announced a plan to invest some $6.5 billion in research and development over the next seven years in an attempt to end its reliance on Japanese imports. South Korean strategists at this point have no choice but to hope for the best and plan for the worst when it comes to Japan’s strategic ambitions in the Pacific. Seoul cannot count on Japan to have its best interests at heart any more than Pyongyang can.
This may seem like a dramatic conclusion to reach from what on the surface looks like a simple trade spat. As Japanese officials have emphasized, Japan’s new export procedures aren’t even a full export ban – they are simply an enhanced security protocol to ensure that Japanese technology does not fall into the wrong hands. But from Japan’s perspective, Seoul should be grateful that Japan was willing to share its technology with South Korea in the first place and should stop bringing up past injustices every time it wants something from Tokyo. In this sense, however, Japan is perhaps as out of touch with the implications of its actions as it was in 1910 and 1592. Japan may think what it is doing is in South Korea’s best interest, but South Korea has over 400 years of historical experience to doubt Japan’s intentions. This particular spat may be resolved in the short term because South Korea’s economy is even more dependent on Japan’s than China’s is on the United States’, but in the long term, Japan may have added one more insult to injury for whoever will be pointing the spear at its heart in future decades.