Korea and Japan are squabbling again. Only this time, it’s serious.
How do I know? All the Japanese beers have disappeared from the fridge at my local corner store. Korean businesses are boycotting Japanese brands, including my old friends Asahi, Sapporo and Kirin, forcing us to gamble on local brewers who, well, haven’t found their stride yet. This is making it hard to round out a 4-pack of tall cans. But all in all, a beer boycott could be good for both countries.
Koreans are saying it’s Japan’s fault we can’t drink their beer anymore, and that’s partly true. They started this whole thing when they made a new rule limiting Samsung and other tech giants’ access to a few chemicals I can never remember the names of. (Fluorinated polyimides, photoresists, and hydrogen fluoride, in case you wanted homework).
Apparently they help make the microchips inside my phone. So far my phone is working fine, but analyst Song Myung-sup, who watches the tech market in Seoul, tells me that if this keeps up we won’t have anything to stuff the next generation of iPhones and Galaxy’s with.
That’s because Japan dominates the world’s supply for some of those chemicals, and Korea makes most of the microchips. So they’ve really got the tech world in a headlock. This could seriously limit your ability to watch cat videos in 5G.
But as anyone who’s been in a romantic relationship can attest, insults, boycotts and trade restrictions usually mean you’re getting somewhere. Korea and Japan have hit a sore spot, and now the whole world knows. The only choice left is to talk about it.
Actually, Japan started this whole thing a long time ago, back in 1876, when they came to Korea and essentially decided it was theirs (colonization officially started in 1910). A lot of countries were doing that at the time — England, Germany, Russia — which is not a great excuse, but at least it shows the mood of the era. The US asked Japan to leave after World War II, but the whole thing left a stain on relations that neither Korea nor Japan seems to know how to clean up.
To be fair, they’ve tried a couple times — once with a treaty in 1965. Japan gave Korea some money for the people it forced to work at its colonial companies. Instead of giving the money to those workers, the Korean government used the money to develop the country. That worked out pretty well for the country, but not for the workers. Then last year a Korean court decided that deal was no good, so they ordered some Japanese companies to pay more money. Japan didn’t like that.
The second time was in 2015, when a South Korean president made an agreement to settle the issue of ‘comfort women’, who were young Korean women forced to work in brothels for the Japanese empire. Then the next president decided that deal wasn’t very good, so they canceled it. And Japan didn’t like that again.
So then Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to tinker with South Korea’s tech companies, which is a bad idea for all kinds of reasons – mainly that trade between South Korea and Japan is crucial to the global smartphone market. We need them to get along so we can upload videos of our breakfast. And buy 4-packs of Asahi.
Oddly, Abe did this only days after taking the stage at the G20 conference in Osaka, where he told world leaders how important it is to have plenty of imported beers from lots of different countries. Actually what he said was, “A free and open economy is the foundation of global peace and prosperity,” which is pretty much the same thing.
They say resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. I guess this is kind of the opposite, since Koreans are actually refusing to drink the beer, and hoping it will hurt Japan. It will, but won’t it hurt everyone else in the process?
The other day I walked past a restaurant serving Sapporo style food. The place was oozing with ambiance. Sadly the only person inside was the owner, a Korean woman in her mid 30s pacing from booth to empty booth. I had to wonder what boycotters will say if she loses her restaurant. And what about the hungry customers who filled her seats every night before this trade war? Apparently they’ve made some dietary changes.
An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. But a boycott on beer leaves the whole world bitter and stuck buying microbrews that probably belong on the b-team.
But now that there’s hardly any beer to drink, I’ve got plenty of time to think about economics and war crimes, and I’m starting to see the bright side. If anything, this mini trade war has done some good for the two neighbors and their unpleasant shared history — by making their issues more obvious, to themselves and to the world.
History doesn’t clean itself up on its own. You have to confront it and reach some kind of reasonable conclusion. One that both sides are okay with. And then move past it the best you can. Without changing your mind later on.
Conversation brings a lot more progress than sitting on fences. It also forces people to say terrible things about each other, which is why Korean newspapers are calling out politicians for drinking saké with lunch and eating at Japanese restaurants — both perfectly good ways to spend a Saturday until a month ago.
Things will probably go that way for a while. In the meantime, I’ll root for Korea and Japan to find their way out of this while adapting to the new lineup of tall cans at the corner store. Once these issues finally come to a head, Japan and Korea can begin the healing process. And then we can stop worrying about a shortage of microchips for our smartphones. And I can round out my 4-pack with a tall can of Asahi.
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