Wartime labor rulings cast dark clouds on Japan-s. Korea ties
DESPITE the need for closer cooperation in achieving a denuclearised Korean Peninsula, the future of Japansouth Korea relations looks to be increasingly hanging in the balance after South Korea’s top court ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation over wartime forced labor.
Finding their ties fraught with challenges because of wartime history, Tokyo and Seoul have been trading barbs since the first top court ruling in October.
The latest compensation order issued Thursday to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. added to the woes. The decision triggered a swift and sharp response from Tokyo, which urged Seoul to take “appropriate” steps promptly.
“It is a breach of international law and we are in a situation where maintaining ties between Japan and South Korea could become difficult” due to the impact of the rulings, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said.
“As someone who hopes to develop bilateral ties, I’m deeply concerned that the South Korean government has yet to do anything,” the minister said. “It goes beyond whether the language used by Japan’s foreign minister is strong or not.”
Kono also said the rulings “overthrow the very legal foundation” of bilateral ties since the 1965 normalisation of diplomatic relations.
Japan maintains that the issue of compensation was settled under a 1965 agreement with South Korea on the settlement of problems related to property and claims. But the South Korean court said the right of victims of forced mobilisation under Japan’s “illegal” colonial rule to seek compensation was not terminated by the accord.
The recent court decisions are expected to affect similar wartime labor cases. The Korean Peninsula was under Japanese colonial rule between 1910 and 1945.
Kono’s remarks came as Tokyo officials wait to see how the South Korean government will respond to the recent developments, with one source saying, “The ball is in their court.”
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry, for its part, said Seoul will respect the rulings and expressed concern about Tokyo’s “overreaction” to them. The country is expected to draw up measures to address the compensation issue.
Such exchanges of criticism have raised concern about a widening rift between Tokyo and Seoul at a time when not only bilateral but trilateral cooperation with their common ally the United States is seen as critical in dealing with North Korea.
Political experts stress the importance of a cool-headed approach by both sides.
“The bottom line is the Japanese government and the South Korean top court differ on their interpretations (of the 1965 bilateral agreement),” said Osamu Ota, a professor well-versed in modern Korean history at Doshisha University in Kyoto. “But it is far from a ‘reckless move’ (as described by Japan).”
Wartime history continues to cast a shadow over Japan-south Korea relations despite the nations forging close economic ties coupled with active people-to-people exchanges.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of a joint declaration aimed at developing future-oriented ties and the two countries had sought to “manage” difficulties stemming from their wartime past.
But in a sign of cooling bilateral ties, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not hold summit talks with South Korean President Moon Jae In when both visited Singapore and Papua New Guinea for regional gatherings in mid-november.
The chances appear low of substantive talks between the Japanese and South Korean leaders on the fringes of the upcoming Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires this weekend.
The gathering comes just days after South Korea decided to dissolve a Japan-funded foundation set up under a 2015 bilateral agreement designed to finally and irreversibly settle the issue of “comfort women,” who were forced to work in wartime Japanese military brothels.
Some lawmakers from Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party have been stepping up calls on the Japanese government to take countermeasures, including taking cases related to wartime labor to the International Court of Justice.
After the South Korean top court ruling in October, the Japanese Foreign Ministry created a division to deal with issues pertaining to compensation claims.
The Japanese government has contacted companies involved in wartime labor lawsuits to seek understanding over its stance that they should not abide by rulings upholding individual compensation claims by South Koreans.
Tokyo threatened Thursday to take countermeasures depending on South Korea’s response, without giving further details.
Doshisha University’s Ota argues Japan needs to stick to the spirit of the 1998 joint declaration and leave the door open for dialogue.
The issues of forced mobilisation and labor as wells as comfort women cannot be solved quickly because they boil down to how the victims overcome their past, according to Ota.
In the 1998 document, then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said Japan caused “tremendous damage and suffering to the people of the Republic of Korea through its colonial rule” and expressed “deep remorse and heartfelt apology for this fact.”
Overcoming the past is “something that we need to continue thinking about now and in the future through dialogue between the peoples of Japan and South Korea,” Ota said.
Kim Seong Ju (L), one of the plaintiffs in a damages suit involving Koreans who were forced to work in Japan during World War II, speaks to reporters in Seoul on November 29.