The escalating feud between South Korea and Japan is heightening concerns about the fallout for global supply chains, financial markets and economic growth.
What started as a dispute over colonial-era grievances has snowballed over the past two months, with relations deteriorating to the lowest point in decades on Thursday after South Korea withdrew from a key intelligence-sharing pact. The won weakened on the news, while Japanese defense stocks rose.
“This seems to be a signal that the Korea-Japan conflict will continue,” said Joonwon Yoon, a fund manager at HDC Asset Management in Seoul. “It only adds more uncertainties to the market.”
The spat is impacting businesses, investors and the outlook for growth in two of Asia’s biggest economies.
The global tech industry, for example, is watching the dispute closely after Japan restricted exports of materials vital to South Korean manufacturers of semiconductors and computer displays — a move that could upset supply chains for everything from Apple iPhones to Dell laptops. Samsung Electronics Co., the world’s biggest chipmaker, is trying to diversify its suppliers, but investors are wary: The stock has slumped about 6 percent since the start of July.
For Japanese companies, boycotts by South Korean consumers pose a growing threat. Sales of Japanese cars in South Korea plunged 32 percent in July from the prior month; beer sales from brands like Asahi Group Holdings Ltd. reportedly declined 40 percent; and Fast Retailing Co. said its Uniqlo stores in South Korea are taking a hit. The number of South Koreans visiting Japan slumped 7.6 percent in July, an ominous sign for travel agencies and duty-free store operators.
Beneficiaries of the spat include South Korea’s Soulbrain Co., which makes one of the materials impacted by Japan’s export restrictions. Shares have surged more than 50 percent since early July on expectations the company will win more orders from Samsung and SK Hynix Inc., another big Korean chipmaker. Shares of Japanese defense companies including Ishikawa Seisakusho Ltd. and Hosoya Pyro-Engineering Co. surged more than 10 percent in intraday trading on Friday.
Markets in flux
The spat adds to a long list of headwinds facing South Korea’s stock market, from the U.S.-China trade war to simmering concerns about global economic growth. The nation’s benchmark Kospi index has dropped about 8 percent since tensions began escalating in early July, one of the biggest declines worldwide, and the won has weakened about 4 percent against the dollar.
Japanese markets have held up somewhat better, with the Topix losing about 5 percent. The yen, seen as a haven currency during times of global market turbulence, has gained about 2 percent versus the greenback.
Some investors see opportunities in the volatility. NH-Amundi Asset Management, which manages about 40 trillion won ($33 billion), has launched a Korean equity fund that invests in local suppliers that may benefit from Japan’s export restrictions.
The impact on growth has been limited so far, but the potential for disruption is significant. Japan and South Korea are each other’s third-biggest trading partners, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The spat won’t have an immediate impact on the countries’ sovereign credit ratings, but over time it could weaken their economic growth potential and that of the world by undermining support for multilateral trading frameworks, S&P Global Ratings said this month.
The Bank of Korea cut interest rates last month and has said it will consider responding with more monetary stimulus to ease the impact of trade tensions. Forecasters surveyed by Bloomberg expect the nation’s economic growth to slow to just 2 percent this year, the weakest pace since the global financial crisis in 2009.
Even that may prove optimistic. Given that the stern stance from both sides has fueled public support for President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the conflict is unlikely to end anytime soon.