South Korean protesters tear up a huge Japanese flag during a rally near the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2019. Under the new president, scenes like this could become less common. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

In the latest barrage in a spiraling diplomatic-economic war between Seoul and Tokyo, a newly formed committee of South Korean lawmakers said Thursday that it will recommend Japan be referred to the UN Security Council.

Emotions are at fever pitch in South Korea. One man has already committed suicide in a protest at the Japanese Embassy site in Seoul. Boycotts are hammering Japanese consumer products, while no resolution appears visible in a dispute that potentially imperils the supply chain of the global electronics sector.

Choi Jae-sung, chairman of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s newly-convened “Special Committee on the Japanese Economic Aggression,” told foreign reporters Thursday that his committee will “immediately” urge South Korean President Moon Jae-in to report Japan to the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee for alleged violations of sanctions on North Korea.

‘Kamikaze mission’

Japan announced early this month a new, 90-day approval process for three key chemicals exports to South Korea. While it is not yet clear if the new paperwork requirements will prove to be actual embargoes, Koreans believe the worst. They have reacted with rage.

Japan has cited national security concerns as one reason for withholding exports of the chemicals to South Korea. The position of Choi – who was joined at the press event by five fellow parliamentarians – is that it is, in fact, Japan that has permeable export controls.

Citing international reports, Choi alleged that Japanese drone components, missile gyroscopes and naval radars have ended up in North Korea. “Japan is not capable of controlling strategic commodities,” he claimed.

Painting an apocalyptic portrait, Choi warned that Japanese export controls could lead to the “destruction of the global economic order.” He continued, “It reminds us of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that Japan conducted as a kamikaze mission.”

Choi is alone in neither his indignation nor his historical references.

At the conclusion of the committee’s press conference, a protester burst into the venue, brandishing a sign emblazoned with the Japanese flag and the word maruta. Maruta (“log man”) is the term Unit 731 – a notorious Japanese biological warfare unit – used to dehumanize the victims of human experiments during the Pacific War.

Chip dip

The three restricted Japanese chemicals are critical to the Korean semiconductor industry, the nation’s largest industrial sector. Korean memory chips, in turn, are central to the electronics supply chain worldwide.

“If Japan continues to break down the global value chain,” Choi warned, “Japan will pay the price.”

Separately, SK Hynix, Korea’s second largest chip-maker after Samsung Electronics, announced Thursday that it was cutting chip production. It did not blame the move on the Japanese action, instead citing weak second quarter results based on falling memory chip prices: SK Hynix’s net profits plummeted 88% year-on-year, the firm said.

However, company officials did say that they are securing inventory due to the Japanese action. Asia Times learned last week that South Korean chip makers have less than a 90-day supply of the essential Japanese chemicals, indicating the urgency of a resolution.

Casus belli

South Korea considers Tokyo’s new approval process retaliation for a Korean Supreme Court ruling. The court seized assets from Japanese firms at the beginning of this year in order to compensate Korean laborers forced to work for the companies in the 1940s.

Tokyo was infuriated: Its position is that all colonial-era labor compensation claims were covered in a 1965 diplomatic normalization treaty.

That treaty, which took over a decade to negotiate, opened the way for Japanese firms to do business in Korea. It was accompanied by a Japanese financial aid package of $800 million in grants and soft loans. But the then-Korean government declined to pay any monies to victims, instead using the Japanese funds for economic development.

With the 1965 treaty having been based on the post-World War II San Fransisco peace treaty of 1951, Japan has accused South Korea of “subverting the post-World War II international order.”

Seoul’s position, a senior government adviser clarified to a group of reporters on Wednesday, is that the court judgment was based on global concepts of human rights, which supersede national issues such as the 1965 treaty.  Moreover, he continued, the compensation paid in 1965 (based on Japanese back-pay laws) was insufficient: reparations for breaching the laborers’ human rights are also due.

Although South Korean presidents have customarily influenced judicial processes via the Justice Ministry, the government adviser added that there is no official mechanism by which Seoul can formally override a court decision.

It is not just the Supreme Court case that irks Tokyo. It has also been infuriated that the Moon administration overturned a 2015 bilateral agreement on “comfort women” signed by the previous Park Geun-hye administration; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called Korea “untrustworthy.”

Two recent military incidents have further irked Tokyo: An order by Seoul that a Japanese warship invited to a Korean naval review strike its “rising sun” naval ensign, and the apparent activation of a Korean destroyer’s target radar on a Japanese aircraft.

Worse may be to come. Tokyo has hinted that it may amplify its action by removing Korea from a “white list” of 27 countries that enjoy preferential access to Japanese exports. That list covers over 1,000 items.

“Japan is shooting itself in the foot,” Choi said. “If Japan removes Korea from the white list, it will be difficult for Japan to restore the trust it has built since World War II.”

US keeps mum

After Seoul ignored Japan’s demands for arbitration on the 1965 treaty, Tokyo refused Seoul’s demands for bilateral talks on the current dispute. Yesterday, Korea raised the issue at the WTO General Assembly, but failed to drum up any international support; some diplomats told Reuters that they are wary of engaging in Japan and Korea’s endless disputes.

Seoul now appears to be hanging hopes on US intervention.

A constant stream of officials is being deployed Stateside to plead the Korean case; on Thursday alone, local media reported that a four-person bi-partisan parliamentary delegation, as well as Trade Minister Yoo Myong-hee, were en route to Washington on separate visits.

In statements likely aimed at Washington, Seoul has warned that the situation risks fraying the already fragile regional security alliance – albeit, the only official military tie that actually binds Seoul and Tokyo is an intelligence-sharing agreement.

Washington, perhaps mindful of the lack of common ground between its two key Northeast Asia allies – Seoul hammers Japan over colonial-era atrocities; Tokyo insists it has apologized and compensated – has taken no stance.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton and US Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell have both visited Seoul and Tokyo in the last 10 days. Both hedged; neither committed to any mediation efforts.

Even US President Donald Trump – not a man known for his prudence – has signaled caution, writing in a tweet: “It’s like a full-time job getting involved between Japan and South Korea.”

Boycotts: From gear to beer

Tuesday’s Russian incursion into airspace over Dokdo – a pair of islets in the Sea of Japan that are garrisoned and administered by Seoul, but are also claimed by Tokyo, which calls them Takeshima – proved a welcome diversion for Korean editors this week.

Otherwise, local media are dominated by coverage of the Japan dispute.

President Moon appears to be one beneficiary – at least for now. Opposition politicians have had little choice but to rally behind him. Outside the corridors of power, the public is even more incensed.

Multiple demonstrations have erupted at the site of the Japanese Embassy. Last Friday, a 78-year-old man immolated himself in a car filled with flammable materials in an apparent suicide protest, and subsequently died from his injuries. According to local press reports, his father-in-law had been a forced laborer.

Currently, the embassy itself is under reconstruction; its staff are relocated in nearby commercial buildings. Asia Times has been informed that the embassy has long been seeking to relocate to larger premises, but has been unable to find a landlord willing to lease it space – necessitating the ongoing reconstruction/expansion of its chancery.

Product boycotts are expanding in all directions. A new online community, NoNo Japan – which provides information on products to boycott – temporarily crashed last week due to the massive traffic it was receiving.

An online community devoted to travel to Japan has reportedly suspended operations, and media have run photos of empty ferry terminals and reported massive drops in visitor numbers to Japan. Drivers of Japanese cars are suffering: Reports state that some gas stations are refusing to fill Japan-made vehicles. Nonghyup Hanarao Mart – a supermarket chain that is also a farmers’ cooperative – has pulled all Japanese products.

Sales of Japanese beer – Koreans’ favorite beer imports – fell nearly 25 percent in the first two weeks of July compared with the second half of June at Korea’s largest hypermarket chain. In a downtown Seoul GS25 convenience store, a cashier told Asia Times this week, “We have Japanese beers, but nobody is buying.”

And while there appeared to be normal foot traffic during a weekday lunchtime at a downtown branch of Japanese fast-fashion brand Uniqlo – hugely popular among Koreans – the Korean Parcel Workers Solidarity Union announced today that it would refuse to handle Uniqlo products.

According to Korean media reports that cite industry sources, Uniqlo’s sales in the country have fallen 30% – a result that is at least partly driven by comments by Uniqlo’s CFO, who opined that the boycott would not last long.

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