1. Japan - South Korea relations still on the brink of collapse
In July 2019, the Japanese government imposed controls on exports to South Korea for three chemicals that are used as semiconductors. More than a year has passed since then, and the South Korean government has been touting reinforcements to their export control system, to address deficiencies pointed out by the Japanese.
They have handled this in three specific ways. First, since the export control measures were put in place, there have been more conferences at the section manager level and policy discussions at the bureau director level, promoting dialogue on policy between the relevant government agencies in Japan and South Korea, which were previously stalled for three and a half years. Second, to manage exports of materials that could be used in conventional weapons, the Foreign Trade Act was reformed and the legal basis of the regulations was clarified. Third, staff at the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy (MOTIE) created new organizations led by the Director General for Trade Controls Policy (Trade Controls Policy Division, Export Controls Licensing Division, and Technology Transfers Controls Division), and hired more personnel to run them. This was a response to Japan’s suggestion that there were “not enough personnel working in the field of export controls.” (Ref. 1)
According to the South Korean government, since they have made reforms following suggestions of the Japanese representatives, the Japanese must resume their anti-Korean export control to its condition before July 1, 2019. They have placed the ball in Japan’s court. (Ref. 2) Subsequently, South Korea unilaterally demanded that the Japanese should respond to these measures by May 2020. However, the Japanese did not respond, and on that pretext the South Koreans resumed a WTO appeal process that had been temporarily withdrawn. On July 29 of the same year, the WTO established a dispute settlement panel.
Despite Japan’s praise for South Korea’s systemic reforms in security export control, their position is that they need a certain amount of time to ascertain how the amended laws and newly-established systems will be run in practice. Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Kajiyama, has acknowledged that South Korea’s unilateral moves to establish a WTO panel “will make it more difficult to have policy discussions going forward,” and that the present conditions are once again exacerbating relations between the two countries’ relevant authorities in security export control. (Ref. 3)
It is common knowledge that the “wartime labor” issue is behind this problem. Since this issue has not been properly resolved in South Korea, it has become a source of friction in current Japan-Korea relations. After the Supreme Court of South Korea reached a judgment on October 30, 2018, mandating that reparations be paid, South Korean property was seized from the Japanese companies who were defendants in the case. Despite repeated reminders to cash in the relevant assets, it has not been carried out for about a year and a half. The South Korean government’s response to the Japanese assertion that this issue should be resolved within Korea might involve approaches beyond the justice system. Even if these assets were cashed in, it is extremely likely that the relationship between the two countries could crumble due to further retaliation. Consequently, the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea, which is the foundation on which modern Japanese-Korean relations are built, would exist in name but not in reality.