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Review of S. Korea-Japan relations PART 1 Updated: 2019-12-30 16:33:19 KST

In recent months, tensions have mounted between South Korea and Japan. The two countries are long-time economic partners but also former wartime foes.
What caused the recent breakdown in relations? And what is at the root of the dispute?
For an overview into the relationship between Seoul and Tokyo, we have our Foreign Ministry correspondent Kim Min-jee and our political correspondent Kim Mok-yeon, here in the studio with us.
Welcome, you guys.
So Mok-yeon, lets begin with you, what actually sparked this dispute between Seoul and Tokyo?
Well, the dispute has been mounting since October last year, when South Korea's Supreme Court ordered Japanese companies to compensate the Koreans drafted into forced labor under Japanese colonial rule.
A year has passed, but so far, the situation did not improve dramatically.
Just to give you some background, starting in 1910, South Korea was under Japanese rule for 35 years.
Imperial Japan ruled over the peninsula with nearly absolute power.
During that time, many Korean citizens were abused; many faced summary execution, rape and forced labor.
In 1965, twenty years after the country was liberated, South Korea and Japan signed the Treaty on Basic Relations, which bundled financial claims and aid in return for settling the bitter past.
But in late October last year, the South Korean Supreme Court ordered Japan's Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal to pay compensation of around 86-thousand U.S. dollars to each of four Korean victims, claiming that the treaty does not invalidate the right of victims to seek compensation.
Let's take a listen
"The 1965 state-to-state treaty on normalizing relations does not include compensation for rights violated by Japan's illegal occupation."
Japan strongly opposed the decision, reiterating that any compensation due to Koreans who suffered during its occupation was completely covered by the treaty.
With that Supreme Court ruling, we saw bilateral relations take a sharp turn for the worse this year with the thorny historical dispute expanding to trade and security this year. Min-ji, tell us more.
The two Asian countries saw an unprecedented deadlock in their economic ties, after Japan imposed tougher export restrictions on three high-tech materials used in the production of chips and displays.
It later also removed South Korea from its list of trusted trading partners, claiming there had been a breach of trust on security issues.
But the general consensus in Seoul was that it was in retaliation for the Supreme Court ruling ordering Japanese firms to compensate the Koreans drafted into forced labor by Japan during wartime.
Seoul hit back by taking Japan off its own trade whitelist and decided to file a complaint with the WTO.
On top of that, South Korea announced that it would be pulling out from a joint military-intel sharing pact, more commonly referred to as GSOMIA which enabled the two sides to share information on North Korea's nuclear and missile activities.
Now, Mok-yeon, these measures by Tokyo prompted a nationwide boycott movement by South Koreans against Japanese goods and services. Tell us more about that?
Yes, Aram, the so-called NO NO Japan movement started to spread among South Koreans from when the trade curbs were announced in July.
Those taking part refrained from taking trips to Japan.
According to data released by the Japan National Tourism Organization, the tourism boycott movement has only become more pronounced with the number of South Korean visitors to Japan plunging 68 percent on-year in November.
An estimated 205-thousand South Koreans travelled to Japan last month, compared to some 588-thousand visitors a year earlier.
Aside from that, people also stopped buying Japanese products.
The items include small products such as pens, medicines and clothing to more expensive goods like Japanese electronics and even cars.
Data released by Japan's finance ministry show Tokyo's total exports to Seoul standing at 3.5 billion U.S. dollars in November, down 20 percent from last year.
Per item, car exports to Korea dropped by nearly 90 percent on-year.
Food commodity exports, including Japanese beer, which had been very popular in Korea, also fell by almost 49 percent compared to the previous year .
But, I understand there were efforts along the way to build bridges. Minji, can you explain to us the diplomatic efforts as well as the developments following that?
So, the South Korean government continued trying to prevent relations from breaking down completely.
Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon had a one-on-one with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, on the sidelines of the enthronement ceremony of Japan's new emperor.
President Moon and Abe also had brief talks at the ASEAN meeting in Bangkok.
Such events, coupled with behind the scenes diplomacy did bear fruit.
Six hours before GSOMIA was set to expire, South Korea decided to conditionally put off its decision to withdraw with Japan agreeing to resume talks on their trade dispute.
"On the condition that GSOMIA can be terminated at any time, the South Korean government will nullify the decision on August 23rd to end the pact, and to this the Japanese government has expressed understanding. While Seoul and Tokyo told talks on export controls, we will also suspend plans to file a complaint with the WTO."
Since then, a round of talks has been held between the two sides, while Tokyo has relaxed its export restrictions on one of the three materials it had put under tighter control.
And recently, Moon and Abe held summit talks the first in 15 months and agreed to meet more often and not leave their dispute unaddressed.
Now Mok-yeon even if talks resumed to resolve trade and security dispute, the most important thing seems to be how we face these historic problems.
The speaker of Korea's National Assembly got involved on that front.
Yes Aram. Around two weeks ago, National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee-sang submitted two new bills under his name to suggest a solution to the compensation issue.
One of the bills would establish a foundation for companies and citizens from both countries to voluntarily make donations to be given to the victims.
The other bill would re-create an investigation committee tasked with looking into the details of the victims' compensation and find grounds to expand support funds for their families.
Submitting the proposal, Moon said he hopes the bill will lead to a breakthrough on the stalled Seoul-Tokyo relations.
After the details of the bill were revealed, reactions from Japan were mixed.
The bill has to be passed at the parliament's judiciary committee and then put up for a vote at the plenary session.
But the passage is not guaranteed because there's been strong opposition from several victims and civic groups who claim the bills help Japan obtain forgiveness for its actions with money.
So for now at least, the talks are back on track but the two sides still have a lot of issues to settle. Min-ji, how are things looking for 2020?
With the conditional extension of GSOMIA, the two sides have gained some time but the trade issue isn't a matter that can be solved overnight and putting Seoul back on Tokyo's trade whitelist will require the approval of Japan's cabinet.
That said, South Korea will also put GSOMIA back on the table.
On top of that, fresh issues are in store South Korea could sell off the assets seized from Japanese companies following the ruling on forced labor, and there's also the issue of using the controversial rising sun flag at the Tokyo Olympics next year.
Concerns also linger over Japan's plans to release radioactive water into the sea.
"South Korea-Japan tensions could rise to new levels if Seoul goes ahead and cashes out the seized assets as early as April and it could lead to another round of economic retaliation on Tokyo's part. There are also issues concerning radioactive water and the Olympics, but the two sides are expected to try to contain the situation without getting at each other for the time being to keep alive the momentum for talks."
But at the end of the day, experts say the key will be whether Seoul and Tokyo can find a viable compromise to their long-running historical dispute that's acceptable to both governments as well as the victims.
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