It is a historic dispute in the process of appeasement. South Korea announced on Monday March 6 a plan to compensate its nationals who were victims of forced labor in Japan during the war. South Korea and Japan are important U.S. allies in the region, but their bilateral ties have long been strained by Japan’s brutal colonial rule imposed on Korea between 1910 and 1945.
According to data from Seoul, about 780,000 Koreans were subjected to forced labor during the 35 years of Japanese occupation, not counting the women reduced to sexual slavery by Japanese troops. Tokyo insists that a treaty signed in 1965 – which allowed the two countries to establish diplomatic relations and win reparations worth around $800 million in grants and loans market – settled all claims between the two countries regarding the colonial period.
But the ties between the two neighbors had deteriorated since 2018 due to the return to the forefront of this historic dispute. In a historic 2018 judgment, the Supreme Court of South Korea ordered certain Japanese companies to pay compensation to a handful of victims.
The Seoul government’s new plan calls for a local foundation to accept donations from large South Korean companies – which benefited from reparations granted by Japan in 1965 – to compensate the victims.
“The vicious circle must be broken”
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said he “hopes Japan will respond positively to our major decision today, with voluntary contributions from Japanese companies and a full apology.”
He considered this historic agreement essential to improve ties between Tokyo and Seoul. “Cooperation between Korea and Japan is very important in all areas of diplomacy, economy and security amid the current serious international situation and difficult global crisis,” Park Jin said. “I believe that the vicious circle must be broken for the good (of) the peoples at the level of the national interest, rather than leaving (our) relations (thus) stretched for a long time” again, argued the minister.
For its part, “the Japanese government appreciates the measures announced by the South Korean government today as an effort to restore healthy relations between Japan and South Korea”, welcomed the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yoshimasa Hayashi in front of reporters. Tokyo has not reiterated its apologies for the mistreatment suffered by Koreans under its occupation. Park Jin has indeed reaffirmed that his government will stick to the 1998 declaration which already includes an apology.
In Japan, media had previously reported that companies could make voluntary donations, while Tokyo is expected to express new remorse over the issue of forced labor. This historical dispute and the resulting tensions have long crystallized around the issue of sexual slavery during World War II. According to the majority of historians, up to 200,000 women – mostly from Korea but also from other Asian countries including China – were forced into prostitution in Japanese military brothels.
“A New History for Korea and Japan”
In 2015, Seoul and Tokyo had reached an agreement aimed at settling this question “definitively and irreversibly”: Japan had formally apologized and a fund of one billion yen had been created for the survivors. But South Korea had backtracked, for lack of consent from the victims and their families. This decision has increased diplomatic tensions, affecting trade and security ties between the two countries.
For Park Jin, this new compensation plan offers an opportunity to create “a new story for Korea and Japan, going beyond antagonisms and conflicts, to move forward into the future”. “If we compare it to a glass of water, I think the glass is more than half full. And I think the glass will fill more depending on Japan’s heartfelt response that follows,” he said. he assures.
This approach has the support of many families of victims, according to the minister who promised that they would be consulted “one by one” in order to obtain “sincerely their understanding”. However, the measure has already sparked strong protests from victims’ groups, who want financial compensation and apologies directly from the Japanese companies concerned. “It’s as if the ties of forced labor victims are dissolved in South Korean corporate money,” Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer for several victims, wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday (March 5).
In the wake of this announcement, South Korea announced on Monday that it was ending its complaint to the World Trade Organization (WTO) regarding export restrictions on certain Japanese products, pending bilateral discussions to resolve old disputes. “The two governments have decided to promptly conduct bilateral consultations related to current export regulation issues to return to the situation before July 2019,” South Korea’s commerce ministry said in a statement.