Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) may be irritated with South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) for siding with victims of forced wartime labor. File Photo by Kim Kyung-hoon/EPA-EFE
NEW YORK, July 31 (UPI) -- North Korea's recent missile tests are not likely to change the dynamics of the South Korea-Japan trade dispute partly due to U.S. President Donald Trump's approach to Kim Jong Un, a Korea expert says.
Pyongyang's firing of multiple missiles from its east coast on Wednesday, which came after the regime launched two short-range missiles last week, has not drawn a strong response from Trump, or persuaded Seoul and Tokyo to set aside differences.
"They are short-range missiles, and many people have those missiles," Trump recently said, while refusing to criticize the North Korean leader.
Marco Milani, a lecturer in Korean studies at the University of Sheffield in Britain, told UPI this week the U.S. approach signals to its Asian allies the pressure is off, for now.
"I don't think that the recent missile tests will have any considerable effect on South Korea and Japan, especially because Trump did not show the intention of reviewing the U.S. position regarding North Korea afterward," he said in an email.
Trump's strategy has not been contested in Tokyo or Seoul, where South Korean President Moon Jae-in has yet to give up on engagement with Pyongyang. North Korea has condemned Seoul's policies, including upcoming military exercises with the United States.
"South Korea will most likely continue to downplay the importance of recent tests and focus on the possibilities of restarting inter-Korea cooperation projects," Milani said, adding Seoul is seeking to preserve progress on North Korea that began in 2018.
Japan is also playing down the missile tests. Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went golfing a few hours after North Korea fired what may have been Pyongyang's version of the Russian-made Iskander, a short-range, nuclear-capable projectile.
"Japan tends to follow the behavior of the United States in these matters," Milani said. "Since Trump is reducing the importance of these tests Abe also will not emphasize it for domestic purposes, a move that might risk undermining Trump's position on North Korea."
Political rift between South Korea, Japan
Abe's indifference to North Korea's test of weapons is not a sign the Japanese prime minister necessarily supports Seoul's engagement with Pyongyang.
He has been irritated with various developments in South Korea, such as the closure of a comfort women's foundation created in 2015 and South Korean court orders to Japanese firms to pay compensation to Korean victims of forced wartime labor.
Some of these developments may have contributed to the present-day trade dispute, although Tokyo has officially denied any connection between the issues.
Lauren Richardson, director of studies and a lecturer at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at Australian National University, told UPI that Moon's approach to historical grievances is a break from past policy. From Tokyo's perspective, it's a sign Moon is going off-script.
"For a long time, the South Korean government was on board with Japan," Richardson said by Skype. "But now Moon is converging with the victims more than anyone, on their demands, which doesn't align with Tokyo's approach" or the approach of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.
Richardson also said blocs of South Korean activists who work with the victims, including former comfort women, forced laborers and their family members, are powerful and want their grievances solved on their own terms.
Comfort women and supporting activists, for example, have called for the shutdown of the bilateral foundation since 2015 on the grounds they were not consulted, and because funds came from private sources.
"I think it's in Japan's interest to arrive at a victim-centric settlement," Richardson said. "But I don't think it's going to happen. It's very worrisome."
Richardson, who is working on a book on Japan-South Korea relations and transnational advocacy networks, said some Korean forced laborers who were supposed to have been compensated with the signing of the Korea-Japan Treaty of 1965 never received a settlement, though it is unclear whether Seoul or Tokyo was ultimately responsible for the oversight.
Decades later, it is increasingly the South Korean descendants of the victims who are speaking out, Richardson said.
"It's often not the laborers, it's their children filing their court cases," the analyst said, adding plaintiffs she spoke to have said they suffered from the trauma of having their parents taken away, as they grew up without a father figure in the household.
"One woman, she was always waiting for her dad to come home, waiting for years, even after the war ended and Korea was liberated," Richardson said. "Japan often didn't notify them that their parents died."
Japan's colonization of Korea has overshadowed the history of the peninsula, and the past served as a backdrop for much of the 20th century, when the 1965 treaty was signed into law.
Following the treaty, Japan extended hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid to the underdeveloped South, which at the time was under authoritarian rule.
Tokyo may have never anticipated South Korea's dramatic transformation in the decades that followed -- changes that included South Korean democratization, which encouraged marginalized groups to voice their grievances, as well as Korea's economic rise, said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, who teaches international relations at King's College London.
South Korea's competitiveness may have taken Japan by surprise, changing the dynamics between the two countries, Pacheco Pardo said.
"Right now if you look at sectors such as cosmetics, for example, cultural products, movies and other sectors, you see Korea competing head-to-head with Japan," the analyst told UPI.
South Korea was already dominating the semiconductor industry by the 1990s, he added.
Korea playing catch-up to Japan in the cutthroat field of technology is not news, but it may have bothered the Japanese government for quite some time.
Tokyo's trade restrictions on July 1 targeted South Korea's leading tech exports, including smartphones, flat-screen TVs and semiconductors, a move that continues to roil South Koreans.
By early Thursday, Japanese politician Akira Amari had said there is 100 percent certainty Japan will remove Korea from a "whitelist" of preferred trading partners, according to the Sankei Shimbun.