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Saving the Japan-South Korea Relationship

Although both countries have long been well-consolidated democracies, historical and territorial disputes have consistently marred bilateral relations. But today, their relationship may be at its lowest point since diplomatic ties were established in 1965.

SEOUL – Japan and South Korea have never been easy partners. Although both have long been well-consolidated democracies, historical and territorial disputes have consistently marred bilateral relations. But today, their relationship may be at its lowest point since diplomatic ties were established in 1965.

The situation began to deteriorate in July, when Japan’s trade ministry introduced new licensing requirements that impede exports of three chemicals that South Korea needs to manufacture high-tech products like semiconductors and display panels. Japanese officials claimed that the move was necessary to prevent sensitive materials from being shipped illegally to North Korea for military use. South Korea called the justification groundless, and consumers launched a boycott of Japanese goods, from beer to clothing.

In South Korea’s view, Japan is trying to punish it for a 2018 Supreme Court decision ordering Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate South Koreans for forced labor during Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula during the first half of the twentieth century. Japan contends that the 1965 treaty establishing diplomatic relations – which included $500 million in grants and loans to South Korea – resolved all questions related to compensation, while South Korea argues that the treaty does not cover individual claims.

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