Strained South Korea-Japan relations and Turkey's role

MUHAMMET ALI GÜLER
Published 24.08.2019 00:02

The relationship between South Korea and Japan was normalized in 1965 with the signing of the Treaty on Basic Relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea. The treaty stipulated that Japan would provide about $800 million to South Korea in economic aid and loans. However, both countries have had several disagreements over historical and territorial issues over the years. The current sticking points are the use of wartime Korean forced labor and "comfort women" during the Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula.

South Korea has demanded that Japan – over issues related to the Japanese occupation – offer both compensation and an imperial apology. One such example was when a South Korean court ordered Japanese companies to pay for the use of forced labor during the Japanese occupation.

According to some, the deal made under the Shinzo Abe and Park Geun-Hye governments in regard to the "comfort women" shows that Japan is eager to maintain its relationship with South Korea.

Amid increasing tensions between Seoul and Tokyo, Japan's decision on Aug. 28 to revoke the privileged export agreement with South Korea has worsened bilateral ties.

The privileged export agreement is also known as the "white list," which provides for easier and faster exports to those countries on the list. In other words, South Korean buyers of products that are particularly related to high-tech products will experience more hurdles with the removal of South Korea from Japan's white list.

It is believed that Tokyo's move was interpreted as retaliation for a Korean court's decision to force Japanese companies to pay compensation for wartime labors. Tokyo, however, took a stance by removing South Korea off the white list for national security reasons.

President Moon Jae-in of South Korea said countermeasures toward Japan's decision will be taken soon. "We will never lose to Japan again. We can beat Japan," said Moon, in reference to the Japanese occupation between 1910 and 1945.

A number of other high-level South Korean officials, including Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Sung Yun-mo and Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said Japan will be removed from South Korea's white list.

"We will also remove Japan from our white list and go through the process to strengthen our export controls," Hong added.

On the other side, there has been regional and global fallout from the crisis. Now maybe one of the worst times for the U.S. in the Far East due to the fact that South Korea and Japan, two important U.S. allies, are in a row while the U.S. is embroiled in a trade war with the world's second-largest economy, China.

Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell, who is also a former Air Force veteran, will be traveling back and forth between Seoul and Tokyo in the coming days to find a convincing solution for both sides.

Moreover, the growing tension between the most developed Asian nations may change the balance of power in Asia and beyond. Therefore, this is a vital issue that requires a stable focus to solve the dispute without dissatisfying any of them. The best approach would be to secure the well-being of both nations which, in turn, would benefit the world in various ways; some of these include the global supply chain, the balance of power, and regional and global peace.

What Turkey can do

Turkey's relations with South Korea and Japan are unique due to their historical past. These two Asian countries occupy a deep place in the hearts of all Turkish people. Therefore, it could be said that Turkey can very well play an important role in solving this decades-long problem between the two nations.

Ankara may offer to take positive and constructive roles in mediation between South Korea and Japan. Turkey should consider the interests of South Koreans and Japanese when mediating talks. This is contrary to some saying American interests are in danger while tension grows between the two American allies in Asia.

In easing this tension, Turkey should approach both sides objectively by showing that it does not have any hidden agenda in cooling down this tense situation.

Turkey, as a mediator between the two, may emphasize the changing axis of the global order in which South Korea and Japan are among the most vital players. Any confrontation between the two may cause a breaking point in the Asia-Pacific region and the world.

For example, a likely war or extreme "face-off" between the two important Asian nations may reverse the changing axis of global order from the East to the West, or it could have the two countries falling out of the race with other regional and global actors.

Turkey, as a mediator that believes in the multipolar world order, may remind these two friendly nations of their importance for the world in matters ranging from regional to global issues, to technology, and so on.

It has undertaken numerous mediating roles between nations and sides in the past. If Turkey can leverage its previous experience in a mediating role between South Korea and Japan, there could be very positive results for both sides and Turkey.

By doing so, Turkey's role in mediating between the two countries will prove that it is a reliable global mediator. Therefore, Turkey's efforts may be appreciated regionally and globally.

Besides, this is a very good opportunity to show that Turkey is eager to contribute to resolving any issue in its region and beyond by being an advocate of regional and global peace.

* Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the University of Malaya, Malaysia

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