TOKYO -- As officials from South Korea faced their Japanese counterparts to discuss Tokyo's controversial imposition of export controls on key industrial materials on July 12, President Moon Jae-in was on a tour of the southwestern province of Jeollanam-do. In his remarks, the South Korean president invoked the memory of a national war hero who defeated the Japanese navy in the 1590s.
"During Japan's 16th-century invasions of Korea, Jeollanam-do residents, together with Admiral Yi Sun-sin, safeguarded the country with only 12 ships," said Moon, departing from the script given to the media. Moon knew from experience that mentioning the country's most revered historical figure would drum up hostility toward Japan, which had fired the first shot in a trade war with South Korea only eight days earlier.
Separated by only 50 km of water, the two countries share a long history of mostly peaceful coexistence. However, memories and symbols of past conflicts remain highly charged -- and during times of tension, invoking them can become a powerful political weapon.
Today's tension stems from the basic treaty of 1965, which opened up diplomatic relations between the two countries. Even though both were staunch U.S. allies during the Cold War, it took 14 years to forge the deal.
Under the settlement, Japan agreed to pay $500 million in grants and low-interest long-term loans, which was roughly 1.5 times of South Korea's national budget at the time. Under the terms -- negotiated with what was then a military dictatorship in South Korea -- issues concerning property, rights and interests of the two countries and their people were considered to "have been settled completely and finally."
In 2015, Tokyo agreed to make a one-time contribution of 1 billion yen ($9.2 million) as part of a settlement over the Japanese military's use of wartime "comfort women." Seoul used the proceeds to establish a foundation to support the surviving women. At the time, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed his "most sincere apologies and remorse," while then-South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se declared that "the issue is resolved finally and irreversibly with this announcement."
However, the Moon administration dissolved the foundation in July.
From Tokyo's perspective, various claims from the colonial period between 1910 and 1945 have been legally settled, and moves -- like the Supreme Court decision last year ordering Japanese companies to pay reparations to wartime laborers -- to reopen cases are simply unacceptable. "The patience with South Korea has come to an end for many ordinary Japanese people," said Rui Matsukawa, ruling party lawmaker speaking in her personal capacity on July 24.
Things look different from the other side. Moon, in his speech at the 100th anniversary of March First Independence Movement this year, said: "The task of setting history right is what is needed to help our future generations stand tall."
Lee Young-chae, professor of human and social sciences at Keisen University, explains that the goal is "reestablishing social justice," meaning redressing the rights of ordinary people who had been unjustly treated by repressive governments.
The Korean scholar stressed that they are "not necessarily aimed to be anti-Japanese, but it is true that severe views against Japan are on the rise."
Times were better in 2003, a year after Japan and South Korea successfully co-hosted the soccer World Cup. Then-President Roh Moo-hyun, the first South Korean top leader born after the Japanese colonial rule, was invited to a banquet in Tokyo with then-Emperor Akihito. The president offered a toast for the "eternal development of the friendly relationship" and the bright future of Northeast Asia "built together by the two countries."
Unfortunately, Roh, who was a political mentor of Moon, was the last South Korean president invited to Japan as a state guest.