South Korea and Japan trade dispute threatens ‘alliance’

North East Asia (map image: Wikimedia Commons)

On 22nd August South Korea gave Japan notice that it would not be extending the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA). The 2016 agreement allowed for the direct sharing of military intelligence between Japan, the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the US and was aimed mainly, but not exclusively, against the North Korean (DPRK) missile programme. The move marks a further unraveling of alliances dating from the Cold War that has gathered pace under the Trump presidency.

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, could do little but express his disappointment at the latest development urging the two sides to kiss and make-up. The latest move from the ROK is but one of a series of damaging incidents that have led to a worsening of relations between the two countries. US officials fear that the antagonisms will ultimately strengthen the hand of China in the region.

These fears were demonstrated in an incident that took place over Dokdo/Takeshima, islands claimed by both Japan and Korea on July 23rd of this year. A joint Chinese/Russian military exercise resulted in Russian long-range aircraft entering air-space over the disputed islands claimed by the ROK. Korean fighters were scrambled and several hundred warning shots fired. Rather than show support for its “ally”, the Japanese government issued a statement criticising the ROK for violating its air-space and firing the warning shots.

The ROK decision to end GSOMIA was taken in retaliation for the Abe Government’s decision in July to tighten controls over the export of three chemicals vital for the production of semi-conductors and smart phone displays:- hydrogen fluoride, fluorine polyamide and photoresist. This was followed by the removal of Korea from the whitelist of countries that do not need government approval for exports with military uses. Japan supplies 82% of Korea’s photoresist, 84.5% of its fluorine polyamide, and 41.9% of its hydrogen sulphide. These materials are vital for the production of semi-conductors and smartphone screens – key sectors of the ROK economy.

This move was widely seen as retaliation by Abe for recent Korean Supreme Court rulings ordering the seizure and sale of some Japanese companies’ assets in the country to pay compensation to Koreans for unpaid wages arising from forced labour during the colonial period. It was a direct attempt to apply pressure on the ROK government by threatening key sectors of its economy. An article in a Japanese weekly magazine suggested that this was part of a plan drawn up by former Chief Cabinet Secretary, Hagiuda Koichi, originally designed to put pressure on the ROK to come to terms over the issue of Japanese compensation to them for the so-called war-time ‘comfort women’ six years ago.

The Abe government’s decision, despite being popular with his nationalist base in the LDP, has had unexpected results for Japanese business. The decision resulted in widespread anger amongst the Korean population and has provoked demonstrations against Abe’s policy and boycotts of Japanese goods in Korea. Already the Japanese Tourist Bureau (JTB) has stated that individual reservations on its Korean language website were down by about 70% compared with last year. Sales of Japanese cars have been hit as well as Japanese retailers like Uniqlo and major Japanese breweries.

Abe’s measures seem likely to hit the business of the Japanese companies, including those supplying the affected materials to the ROK. While these companies are presently the cheapest suppliers of the three chemicals, this is only due to their ability to produce in volume. They have no technical monopoly of the production process. Putin mischievously offered to supply hydrogen sulphide to the ROK, but the fact is that it is quite capable of producing its own supply of the chemicals, although at a slightly higher price. The present glut of semi-conductors also gives them a breathing space to pursue this route if they choose to do so.


A solution to the “historical” problems is made more difficult by the role that capitalist politicians are playing in whipping up nationalism to shore up domestic political support. This can be seen most clearly in the right-wing populist forces around Abe. The Liberal Democratic Party, once a loose federation of support groups for its individual diet members, is now dominated by the supporters of the Nihon Kaigi (Japan Conference) – a nationalist and revisionist organisation that openly defends the war-time military government and its policies in Japan’s former colonies.

It is no coincidence that many of the party’s leaders have family connections with figures in the war-time military government. Abe’s maternal grandfather was Kishi Nobusuke, a civil servant for the Manchukuo regime and later minister for munitions in the war-time military government. He narrowly avoided prosecution as a class A war criminal. Kishi, also a post-war premier, was a formative influence on Abe. The family business of Finance Minister Aso Taro (then called Aso Mining, now the Aso Group) profited from the forced labour of Koreans and allied prisoners of war.

The policy of Nihon Kaigi includes constitutional revision, protecting the state’s reputation by taking a more aggressive stance on historical issues, remembering the war dead, and, in education, inculcating respect for the national flag and anthem as well as “national history” and traditions. This includes the selection of history text-books for schools that gloss over and ignore the crimes of Japanese imperialism in its colonies and the true role of the military government.
The two-fold aim is to steer discontent with the stagnant Japanese economy and falling living standards into a nationalist direction, as they see it “immunising” the population against the ideas of the left and class struggle, allowing for the continued conservative domination of politics,. But it it also does the ideological spade work for Japan to become a “normal country” i.e. a country able to use its military overseas to defend the interests of Japanese imperialism.

Right forces

While the membership of Nihon Kaigi is only 35,000, its members have dominated cabinets under Abe’s premiership. Abe has attempted to “improve Japan’s reputation” by using Japanese diplomatic and financial clout to buy the silence of those countries that suffered as a result of Japanese colonial rule. This has included, for instance, pushing for the removal of statues commemorating the victims of the Japanese military’s system of sexual slavery, euphemistically described as “comfort women”.

Abe’s ally, the right-wing populist Japan Restoration Party, succeeded in ending the sister city relationship between Osaka and San Francisco because of the US city’s support for a memorial to the “comfort women.” While this strategy has had a limited success with the authorities in some countries – for example the removal of a statue in the Philippines – rather than improve Japan’s reputation, it is more likely to provoke popular anger, being seen for what it is as a crude attempt to rewrite history.

While the official position of the Japanese government is that the tightened export controls are not related to the judgments of the ROK’s supreme court, Abe has made little attempt to hide this fact, stating that he believed the Korean High Court decisions and the government’s failure to intervene to prevent the seizure of Japanese companies’ assets were the most serious issue facing Japanese – Korean relations.

The position of Abe and the Japanese government is that all issues of compensation were settled by the 1965 Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea. This was brokered by the then premier Sato Eisaku (Abe’s great uncle) and Park Chung Hee, military dictator of the ROK. The South Korean government used the issue of the 1.03 million Koreans conscripted into forced labour in the negotiations to increase the amount of the financial settlement. However, the final agreement made no mention of individual compensation or the issue of forced labour.

The victims, who were mainly poor Koreans, received no compensation either from the Japanese or Korean governments. The money was spent predominantly on large infrastructure projects which, while they benefited the ROK economy, also indirectly benefited Japanese capital. As long as the ROK was a military dictatorship, no questioning of the agreement or any activism on the part of the actual victims were permitted. After the end of military rule, and, in particular, after the Korean government published in 2005 all of the documents regarding the 1965 agreement, the Japanese government was widely regarded as having colluded with their military overlords to deny fair compensation to the victims of its colonial rule.

President Moon

The present president of the ROK, Moon Jae-In, is a political representative of the “liberal” wing of the South Korean ruling class. In this case, “liberalism” means combining support for capitalism with attempts to distance themselves from the politics of the former military dictatorship and its conservative successors. Moon seeks to use the genuine grievances of the victims of colonial rule to whip up anti-Japanese feeling and strengthen his hand against his conservative political opponents.

When he came to power in May 2017, Moon wasted little time in gutting the 2016 agreement between Abe and Park Geun-hye (daughter of dictator Park Chung Hee) that Abe had declared “final and irreversible”. Japan had agreed to pay 1 bn. yen to a fund supporting surviving comfort women and the South Korean government agreed to refrain from criticising Japan about the issue and do its best to have the statue of a comfort woman removed from in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.

This agreement had been rejected by groups representing most of the surviving comfort women. This was followed by Moon’s refusal to intervene in the decisions of the ROK Supreme Court on the forced labour issue which Japan had demanded he should do. The opinion polls show that, despite increasing unemployment and corruption scandals, he has been at least partly successful in using Korean nationalism to boost his support, with 55% of the population supporting the ending of the GSOMIA agreement with Japan. This was despite strong opposition from conservatives in Korea.

While the representatives of Japanese and Korean capitalism have attempted to exploit national antagonisms to their own political advantage, the working class of the two countries has little to gain from them. In Japan, two of the three trade union federations – Zenroren, linked to the Japanese Communist Party and the independent but leftist Zenrokyo – have opposed Abe’s tightening of export controls against the ROK and participated in joint action with Korean citizen groups against the Abe government. At this stage, this is an indication of the understanding of the most thinking layers of the movement rather than the mass of the Japanese population.


In Korea, the situation is very different. Citizens’ groups have made clear that they are opposed to the Abe government but not to the Japanese people and have attempted to build links with groups in Japan. Authorities in a district in Seoul – Jung Ju – was forced to take down 1,000 banners it had put up urging a boycott of travel to Japan and of Japanese goods after 20,000 South Koreans signed an on-line petition asking for the banners to be taken down and saying that any boycott should be a voluntary decision by the Korean people and not enforced and orchestrated by their government. Amongst Koreans there is a sympathy for the victims of Japanese imperialism as well as a wish to show solidarity with them, alongside distrust of the motives of their own ruling elite.

Socialists in Japan or Korea are not neutral with regard to Abe and Nihon Kaigi’s attempt to rewrite history. They have no interest in the rehabilitation of the Japanese wartime fascist regime and the whitewashing of its crimes. As well as mobilising the population of Korea for forced labour and sexual slavery, it was also responsible for outlawing independent trade-unions and the imprisonment and murder of socialists and communists, eventually leading the Japanese people into a disastrous war in which millions died.

History books should tell the truth and the whole truth about Abe’s grandfather, Kishi and others. The “monster from Showa”, as Kishi was known, was a leading figure in the colonial regime in Manchuria. He bore personal responsibility for the atrocities, murders and rape perpetrated by the militarists under its rule. An exposure of the role of this government and the political ideology of Abe and his backers is in the interests of the majority of both the Japanese and the Korean people.

Socialists are internationalists and stand for the unity of Japanese and Korean working people in struggle. However, this unity can only be built by a recognition of the historical injustices committed by imperialist rule in Korea. Although Korea is not today a colony but an imperialist/regional power in its own right, socialists are for compensation to be paid by the companies that benefited from forced labour to their victims. They also support a direct apology and compensation by the Japanese government for the victims of military sexual slavery.

There should be no illusions that a just settlement is likely to be achieved by Abe and his kind and, indeed, any representatives of Korean or Japanese capitalism. The Abe government needs to be swept aside by a movement of working people in Japan. A government of the working class once established would settle accounts with the Japanese ruling elites once and for all and reach a just settlement with the Korean victims of military rule.

  • No to Abe’s export restrictions against the ROK. Workers will be the victims of a trade war.
  • Compensation for the victims of the forced labour and military sexual slavery policies of the Japanese government.
  • No to attempts to rewrite history. End government censorship of history text-books.
  • For the repeal of Abe’s “Peace and Security Preservation” law.
  • No to a rightist revision of the Constitution.
  • For unity in struggle of fighting labour unions and citizens’ groups in Japan and Korea.
  • Down with the Abe government!

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September 2019