Explainer: History, islets and rulings behind tension between S.Korea and Japan

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 mobilization of forced labor at companies, of women in wartime brothels, and a row over the ownership of islets in the sea between the two nations.

FILE PHOTO: A protester takes part in an anti-South Korea rally near the South Korean embassy in Tokyo February 22, 2013 to mark Takeshima Day in Japan, a commemoration day set by Japan's local government for the disputed islands called Takeshima in Japan and Dokdo in South Korea. REUTERS/Issei Kato

On Friday, South Korea said it would not suspend its intelligence-sharing deal with Japan, in a last-minute reversal that signaled a breakthrough in relations.

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


Last year, South Korea's Supreme Court ordered Japan's Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp 5401.T and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries 7011.T to compensate some wartime forced laborers.

The ruling infuriated Tokyo, which says the former laborers’ right to reparations ceased under a 1965 treaty normalizing diplomatic ties.

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

In October, a commercial by Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo stirred a backlash in South Korea, where it was seen as mocking victims of forced labor and comfort women, a Japanese euphemism for women, many of them Korean, forced into wartime brothels.

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 materialized, 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” is particularly contentious.

Many surviving South Korean victims want a formal apology and compensation from Japan.

Japan says the matter of compensation 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 a weekly protest in front of the embassy.


The two countries also have a territorial dispute which flared again in October 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, and are also claimed by Tokyo.

The cluster sit astride fertile fishing grounds and deposits of natural gas 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 its 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 stopover 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 him.

Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Joyce Lee; Editing by Jack Kim, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Giles Elgood