Bowing statue “may or may not be Abe” . . .
Seoul-Tokyo tensions over unresolved historical issues flared up again this week over new comfort woman statues. The installation, in a privately-owned botanical garden, features statues of comfort women and a man – interpreted to be Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – bowing in front of one of them. The garden’s owner said, “the man may or may not be Abe.” The installation has drawn significant attention and criticism in Japan, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declaring that if the statue indeed represents Abe, the installation would be “unforgivable,” and could have a “decisive impact” on the bilateral relationship. The South Korean government has largely distanced itself from the matter, emphasizing that it was a private citizen who installed the statues.
Looming deadline and WTO panel . . .
The Japan-South Korea bilateral relationship has cooled significantly, with tensions over wartime forced labour and comfort women evolving into a trade dispute. In late 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Mitsubishi to compensate for forced wartime labour. Tokyo then excluded South Korea from its trade ‘white list’ and banned exports of key semiconductor materials. Seoul responded by doing the same. While the relationship has seemingly improved (or not worsened) since the end of 2019, upcoming events could be new flashpoints. On August 4, the South Korean court will move to liquidate the seized assets of Mitsubishi, which ignored the Supreme Court’s 2018 order. Tokyo has warned of grave consequences should the court proceed. On Wednesday, the WTO created a dispute panel to rule on South Korea’s complaint against Japan over the export ban. Tokyo expressed displeasure with Seoul for taking this matter to the WTO instead of resolving it bilaterally.
Bracing for round two . . .
After August 4, the Japan-South Korea relationship may spiral again without a significant intervention or compromise. Seoul-Tokyo relations remain stuck in a pattern of a tit-for-tat retaliation over unresolved historical matters that could lead to significant consequences for the present. Another round of trade feuds would further disrupt the supply chain between the two economies, which have been battered by the COVID-19 outbreak. While the two sides may choose to patch things up amidst a global economic crisis, it seems more likely they may be headed to round two of this feud.