Thousands filled the streets of Seoul on Saturday night, carrying candles and signs of protest against Japan’s tighter trade restrictions on South Korea.
More marches and rallies are planned every weekend as Liberation Day, the holiday commemorating the end of Japanese occupation in 1945, approaches on August 15.
Speakers at a rally outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul denounced the withdrawal of South Korea’s status as a trusted trading partner as an “economic invasion” by Japan, drawing an ugly parallel to World War II-era occupation. The current crisis traces back to Japan’s use of forced labor during the occupation, an issue many South Koreans see as unresolved, while Japan believes it has made adequate restitution.
The rally was organized by a coalition of some 680 civic groups across South Korea to denounce the administration of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo on the grounds that it “distorts history, creates economic aggression, and threatens peace.” Many of the signs carried by protesters singled out Abe for personal condemnation.
“We will fight against the economic blackmail imposed by the Japanese government,” declared activist leader Han Kyung-hee. “Japan should also acknowledge its past war crimes. Japan has not reflected on its wrongdoings, so we will let the whole world know of its atrocities and force it to reflect.”
Organizers called on Japan to immediately return South Korea to its “whitelist” of most trusted trading partners and asked the government of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to withdraw from a security agreement with Japan signed by his predecessor, Park Geun-hye. The Moon administration has signaled it may indeed reconsider that information-sharing agreement.
“[Japan] has been marching against East Asia’s peace efforts by increasing its military presence. It is bluntly revealing its plans to make Korea an economic and military subordinate,” the organizers said.
“South Korea and Japan have become enemies. How can we pass military information to the enemy?” asked one speaker at the candlelight rally.
According to South Korean police, at least two elderly men have died after setting themselves on fire near the Japanese embassy to protest Tokyo’s policies. The boycott of Japanese goods by South Koreans continues to intensify. The Japan Times on Monday cited a poll that shows 80 percent of South Koreans say they are reluctant to purchase Japanese products, leading to sharp declines in tourism and imports, including a decline of over 30 percent in Japanese car sales over the past month. The South Korean stock market, already reeling from the trade war between America and China, is suffering significant losses.
South Korea announced on Monday that it will invest almost $6.5 billion in research and development over the next seven years to develop local alternatives to Japanese imports.
“We want to turn the crisis into an opportunity for the materials, parts and equipment industry,” said Industry Minister Sung Yun-mo. The Moon administration said the goal of the program will be addressing “structural weakness” in the South Korean manufacturing sector due to excessive reliance upon Japan.
South Korean and Japanese officials made conflicting appeals to the U.S., China, and other Asian partners at international forums over the weekend, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bangkok.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono pointed to the lack of international criticism for Japan’s new policies as evidence that other nations “can easily understand Japan’s action from the security point of view.”
Tokyo’s stated reason for removing South Korea from its trade whitelist was that South Korea allowed sensitive products to be shipped to North Korea, although South Koreans believe it was actually an act of retaliation for their Supreme Court ruling that Japanese companies can be held liable for the use of forced labor during the occupation.