Two of Asia's biggest economies are on the verge of letting historical spats derail a tested economic relationship that has amplified their prosperity. Japan last week imposed curbs on the export of materials that are the mainstay of South Korea's vaunted tech industry. Seoul called the measures anti-free trade and threatened to drag Tokyo to the World Trade Organisation, a step that can set off still more retaliation. As nationalistic emotions flare, some Koreans want a boycott of Japanese products, while a survey shows that most Japanese back their government. Relations could stay roiled unless Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in break their months-old silence and address the issues fuelling the discord.
Japan took umbrage last October when South Korea's Supreme Court ordered major Japanese firms to compensate South Koreans conscripted to work in factories and mines during Japan's 1910-1945 occupation of the Korean Peninsula. Japan holds that the 1965 treaty which normalised ties also settled all occupation-era claims in return for loans and aid worth US$800 million. Seoul says individual claims have yet to be settled and it cannot intervene in a court decision. It stayed silent as the local assets of Japanese firms which refused to pay damages were seized. A military dispute involving a Japanese patrol plane and a South Korean destroyer flared up in December last year. A 2015 deal over "comfort women" also unravelled after Seoul this week dissolved a Japan-backed compensation foundation.