Opinion: Japan and South Korea -
the time for cooperation is now

South Korea and Japan need to put aside their differences or risk having the rules based international order that has contributed so much to their economic success eroded by larger players as they wrestle for power, says Fraser Bermingham. Bermingham travelled to South Korea recently as part of a Foundation Track II delegation for a dialogue with the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
Fraser Bermingham speaking to a fellow delegate

Fraser Bermingham at a Kiwi Chamber of Commerce event in Seoul

This past April, Prime Minister Abe of Japan hosted the G20 leaders’ summit in Tokyo. In doing so he announced the leader’s declaration reiterating their support for free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade. Only two days later he announced new export controls on key chemicals needed in South Korea’s vitally important semiconductor industry.

This was in retaliation for South Korea’s supreme court ruling ordering Japanese companies to pay compensation to Korean workers over forced wartime labour. The Japanese action, in turn, spurred nationalistic sentiment in South Korea and fuelled wide scale boycotts of Japanese goods as well as the South Korean government choosing to terminate GSOMIA, an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan.

The dispute has been ongoing for three months now, and I witnessed it first-hand when recently in Seoul for Asia New Zealand Foundation’s Track II visit to South Korea.

We drove past a usually popular Japanese clothing store called Uniqlo to find it almost completely empty, with the exception of a few tourists taking advantage of the heavily discounted items. We were subsequently told sales were down significantly with many of the company's Seoul branches shutting up shop as a result.

As our Track II visit to South Korea continued, we learnt more about this dispute as well as the many previous disputes that have risen to the surface from time to time as a result of historical grievances that span centuries of Korea - Japan relations.

Alarmingly though, we also heard about the grave threat to the rules-based international order, which has allowed countries like Japan, Korea and New Zealand to grow prosperous and maintain stability in the post WW2 era.

This threat primarily comes from the re-emergence of great power politics from the United States, China and Russia, particularly given the current back drop of an America First policy under the Trump administration and the ongoing China - US trade war.

While some may claim great power politics is back and the rules based international order is crumbling, there is yet little proof that this is indeed the case given the highly integrated and economically interdependent world we now live in.

As a result, the debate is ongoing and now is the time for small and medium sized nations like Japan, Korea and New Zealand to stand up and demonstrate our commitment to the rules-based order and show we will not be intimated by the behaviour of larger powers.

However, the cancelling of GSOMIA is not proof of a strong and stable international order. The removal of South Korea from Japan’s ‘white list’ of favoured trading partners is not the proof we need. These actions, no matter how legitimate or emotionally charged they may be, undermine the rules based international order that South Korea and Japan have benefited so much from.

Fraser Bermingham  walking outside with Simon Draper and Tracy Epps

Fraser Bermingham in Seoul with Foundation executive director Simon Draper and fellow Track II delegate Tracy Epps

Now is not the time for nationalistic sentiment but the time for increased international co-operation on all fronts, not just economic, but security, climate change, human rights and cultural.

Japan and South Korea must rally around their shared interests, of which there are many, and reinforce their commitment to the multilateral order.

They must do this not only for themselves but for the rest of the world that relies on such a system for their own development and security.

Only through cooperation and an understanding of their shared interests will South Korea and Japan be able to find the trust needed to work through such difficult and deeply seeded disputes in a peaceful and harmonious manner.

Fraser is an Operations Officer and Troop Commander in the New Zealand Defence Force where he leads soldiers and plans support requirements to enable the NZDF to succeed on operations. In 2018 Fraser was posted to the United Nations Command in Korea as an Assistant Joint Duty Officer where he was responsible for forward communication with the Korean Peoples Army. He is an Asia New Zealand Foundation Leadership Network member. Fraser attended the Foundation's Track II dialogue with the Asan Institute for Policy Studies as a 'Nextgen' delegate.