TOKYO -- Japanese and South Korean business leaders will face the nearly impossible task of finding a path to reconciliation when they meet this week as both governments remain entrenched in a bitter dispute that has eroded economic ties.
The Japan-Korea Economic Association will kick off its annual meeting Tuesday in Seoul, with roughly 200 participants from the South Korean side and about 100 from Japan attending. The gathering was initially scheduled for May but was postponed as bilateral relations soured over a South Korean Supreme Court ruling ordering Japanese companies to compensate Koreans forced to work for them during World War II.
The conference, now in its 51st year, has been a driving force in strengthening economic ties between Japan and South Korea. Previous meetings produced joint statements supporting Seoul's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership and urging economic cooperation that leverages artificial intelligence, for example.
But this week's conference comes against the backdrop of a seemingly intractable political situation. Japan tightened restrictions on exports of chipmaking materials to South Korea in July and later removed Seoul from a list of trusted trading partners. Seoul withdrew from an intelligence-sharing agreement, filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization, and took Tokyo off its own whitelist. South Korean consumers have boycotted Japanese products and tourism.
Some say the impact of the trade restrictions is so far limited, but business leaders are concerned. At a symposium held in June by the South Korean side of the business organization, many attendees lamented the increased difficulty of doing business in Japan and with Japanese companies. Japanese participants expressed worry about the direction of the forced-labor cases.
Still, bilateral business endeavors, such as infrastructure development in Asia and Africa, continue to move forward.
"The situation has become quite difficult, but actual business relationships are functioning," Chairman Hiroaki Nakanishi of the Japan Business Federation, also known as Keidanren, said recently. "We want to get to a good state again." Nakanishi is executive chairman of Hitachi.
"In order to maintain exchanges in the three areas of economics, personnel and culture, it's crucial to have a venue to discuss what we can each do to create a calm environment," said Kazuo Korenaga, senior executive director at the Japan-Korea Economic Association.