Calls in South Korea for a boycott of Japanese goods in response to Tokyo’s curbs on the export of high-tech material to South Korea picked up yesterday, as a dispute over compensation for forced wartime labor roiled ties between the US allies.
It is the latest flash point in a relationship long overshadowed by South Korean resentment of Japan’s 1910 to 1945 occupation of the Korean Peninsula, in particular South Korean “comfort women,” a Japanese euphemism for women forced to work in Japanese military brothels before and during World War II.
Japan apologized to the women as part of a 2015 deal and provided a ￥1 billion (US$9.3 million at the current exchange rate) fund to help them.
Advocacy groups for the women have criticized the fund and South Korea dissolved it yesterday, despite Japan’s warnings that such action could damage ties.
“This is totally unacceptable for Japan. We’ve made stern representations to the South Korean side,” Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasutoshi Nishimura said in Tokyo.
The bitterness over the forced labor issue could disrupt global supplies of memory chips and smartphones.
Japan on Monday said that it would tighten restrictions on the export of high-tech materials used in smartphone displays and chips to South Korea.
The curbs took effect on Thursday, fueling South Korean calls for retaliation.
Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix — the world’s top memorychip makers and suppliers to Apple and China’s Huawei Technologies — could face delays if the curbs drag on.
“A boycott is the most immediate way for citizens to express their anger,” said Choi Gae-yeon of the activist group Movement for One Korea, which staged protests in front of a Japanese automaker’s showroom and a retailer in Seoul this week.
“Many people are angry at the attitude of the Japanese government,” she said.
The row over forced labor exploded last year, when a South Korean court ordered Japan’s Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to pay hundreds of thousands of US dollars to South Korean plaintiffs.
Japan has maintained that the issue was fully settled in 1965, when the two countries restored diplomatic ties, and has denounced the ruling as “unthinkable.”
As of yesterday, nearly 27,000 people had signed a petition posted on the South Korean presidential office’s Web site calling for a boycott of Japanese products and for tourists not to visit.
The government must respond to a petition that gets 200,000 signatures in one month.
Some South Korean social media users posted “Boycott Japan” messages and shared a link to a list of Japanese brands that could be targeted, including Toyota and Uniqlo.
Toyota’s South Korean unit declined to comment and Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing’s South Korean unit did not have an immediate comment.
“Japan boycott movement” was among the most searched-for terms on South Korea’s main online search engine, Naver.
A South Korean actor on Thursday deleted photographs he posted on social media of a visit he made to Japan after online criticism.
South Korea last year imported US$54.6 billion of goods from Japan and paid for US$11.5 billion of its services.
South Korea last year exported US$30.5 billion in goods and US$8.7 billion in services to Japan, South Korean customs and central bank data showed.
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