Tit-for-tat measures affect daily lives as Abe-Lee talks fail to bridge differences 

Worsening relations between Seoul and Tokyo have not only affected the two neighbors’ trade, security and tourism, but also dayto-day life in both countries.

South Korea and Japan have taken tit-for-tat measures since this July as the dispute widened from a long-running row over Korean labor who were taken to Japan to work in mines and factories before and during World War II.

After a South Korean court ordered Japanese companies to compensate the workers last year, the spat intensified and has now spread to trade, security cooperation, tourism and many other aspects of daily life for people in both countries.

Latest media reports show there is growing antagonism between the two peoples, with the targeting of each other’s exports becoming an outlet for the expression of national sentiment. The Japanese are boycotting K-pop singers’ albums and refusing to watch Korean TV dramas, while the South Koreans are campaigning against buying Japanese cars and electronics.

Last week, Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo become one of the main targets of the boycott, after its airing of a controversial TV commercial which features a 13-year-old designer asking the 98-year-old US fashion icon Iris Apfel what she wore when she was her age.

In English, Apfel responds: “I can’t remember that far back”-but in Korean, it’s translated as: “How can I remember things that happened more than 80 years ago?”

South Korean consumers saw that as a thinly-veiled jibe to the “comfort women”-girls and women who were forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels during World War II-reopening deep wounds from the country’s colonial past.

According to figures from the Korea Customs Service, South Korean imports of Japanese beer plunged by 97 percent in August compared with last year, the Maeil Business Newspaper reported.

Japan was the largest source of imported beer in South Korea for the past 10 years-now it is ranked 13th.

Japanese cars are taking a hit too, as Yonhap news agency reported that sales of Honda, Toyota and Nissan sank by 74 percent, citing South Korean auto industry group figures. Separately, footage of a South Korean man bashing his Lexus, a luxury car manufactured by Toyota also went viral.

At convenience stores across Seoul, Japanese brands are notably absent from fridges otherwise well-stocked with foreign beverages. And in Tokyo, sales of TV dramas and movies by K-pop stars have also plummeted.

But as some people in both countries are still peddling cultural stereotypes and whipping up nationalist sentiment, last week the two governments held talks for the first time since the dispute erupted, in what appeared to be an attempt to mend the broken relationship.

On Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held talks with South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon in Tokyo, which had initially raised the prospect of the bitter dispute showing signs of easing. Reports said Lee and Abe agreed that the two countries must not leave their strained ties as-is. And Lee called for promoting communication and exchanges to try to improve their frayed ties.

But despite the highest-level talks being held between both countries in more than a year, Japanese officials said that little progress had been made and that Japan hoped South Korea would “change its stance”.

Zhou Yongsheng, a professor and deputy director of the Japanese Studies Center at China Foreign Affairs University, said as the two nations still remained apart over key issues the prospects for resolving them could still clouded for a period of time.

“The two nations share a long, complex history dating back centuries. And more recently, historical and territorial disagreements have cast a shadow over relations. If these fundamental issues are not addressed, trade conflicts will be difficult to resolve, too,” he said.

Zhou added that the ongoing conflict involves not only the two countries, but also the dispute could also impact the framework of regional security.

As both Japan and South Korea are US allies and play key roles in US intervention in regional affairs, if the Tokyo-Seoul disputes become a long-term issue, the US-Japan-South Korea alliance would also be challenged and result in major security changes in the region, he said.

Ni Yueju, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, voiced worry that by using export controls to resolve political issues, the two countries’ discord will hurt other countries’ efforts to secure a free trade environment. “Ultimately, consumers and ordinary people will bear the brunt,” Ni said.

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