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Explainer - History, islets and rulings behind tension between South Korea, Japan

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By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – The animosity between Japan and South Korea is entwined with the history of Japan’s 1910-45 occupation of the Korean peninsula, the mobilisation of forced labour at companies and women in wartime brothels, and a row over the ownership of islets in the sea between the two nations.

Here is an outline of the issues that bedevil their ties:


Last October, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate some wartime forced labourers.

The ruling infuriated Tokyo, which sees the former labourers’ right to reparation ceased under a 1965 treaty normalising diplomatic ties.

Relations deteriorated when Japan restricted exports of high-tech material to South Korea in July, while a group of former labourers requested a court order to forcibly liquidate Mitsubishi assets for compensation.

Thousands of South Koreans protested condemning what they called Japan’s “economic invasion.”

Last week, a commercial by Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo stirred a backlash in South Korea as mocking victims of forced labour and comfort women, prompting a parody video featuring a 90-year-old woman who worked for Mitsubishi to go viral.

Yang Kee-ho, a professor of Japanese Studies at Sungkonghoe University in Seoul, said the two sides were far apart.

“But it could get even worse if the asset sale of Japanese firms is materialised, so it’s good to listen and talk to the Japanese to see if they can find a new, creative way out.”


Reminders of Japan’s rule are inflammatory for both sides, but the issue of “comfort women,” a Japanese euphemism for women, many of them Korean, forced into wartime brothels, is particularly contentious.

Many surviving South Korean victims demand Japan’s formal apology and compensation.

Japan says the matter of compensation for the women was settled under the 1965 treaty.

In 2015, South Korea and Japan reached a settlement under which Tokyo issued an official apology and provided 1 billion yen ($9.23 million) to a fund to help the victims.

Taking office two years later, South Korean President Moon Jae-in dissolved the fund, effectively scrapping the agreement, a move that analysts said convinced Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the South Korean leader was deceitful.

Tokyo wants Seoul to remove a statue near the Japanese embassy in Seoul commemorating the comfort women, and another next to the Japanese consulate in Busan.

Some comfort women victims continue their weekly protest in front of the embassy.


The two countries also have a territorial dispute which flared this month when South Korea flew fighter jets over a set of remote islands marking its Armed Forces Day.

The windswept volcanic islets, known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, are controlled by Seoul with a small band of coast guards although also claimed by Tokyo.

The cluster sit astride fertile fishing grounds and possibly enormous deposits of natural gas hydrate that could be worth billions of dollars, experts say.

The territorial feud is emotional for Koreans, who say the islands, recorded as part of their territory since 512, were the first land seized by Japan as part of forcible occupation of the peninsula.

Japan argues the islands were never part of Korea and it had established sovereignty by the mid-17th century as a stop-over point for its fishermen.

Seoul rejects Tokyo’s proposal to refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice.

In 2017, Japan complained after Moon served visiting U.S. President Donald Trump a dish called “Dokdo shrimp,” and invited a comfort women survivor to a banquet for Trump.

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Jack Kim; Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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