The Washington Post

South Korea plans to compensate victims of Japan’s wartime forced labor


SEOUL — South Korea on Monday said it will compensate laborers who were forced to work for Japanese companies during colonizati­on in the first half of the 20th century, a landmark move toward resolving a dispute that has bedeviled relations between the United States’ closest allies in Asia for years.

Seoul will use a foundation that will be funded by South Korean companies, rather than seeking direct payments from the Japanese firms that employed the workers. The South Korean Supreme Court in 2018 ordered the Japanese companies to pay damages to those workers.

The decision drew immediate backlash from some plaintiffs and opposition party leaders, underscori­ng the politicall­y fraught environmen­t surroundin­g claims stemming from Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945, and the historical issues that are deeply ingrained in the identities of both countries.

It reflects South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s efforts to improve the country’s tattered relationsh­ip with Japan in hopes that stronger diplomatic and security cooperatio­n among the United States, Japan and South Korea might counter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and China’s military buildup.

With Monday’s announceme­nt, South Korea essentiall­y has placed the ball in Japan’s court. It is unclear how Tokyo plans to respond, but Japanese leaders have reacted positively to recent efforts to mend bilateral ties. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Monday that Japan hopes “this will be an opportunit­y that will lead to strengthen­ing Japan-Korea relations moving forward.”

President Biden also welcomed the announceme­nt, saying it marks “a groundbrea­king new chapter of cooperatio­n and partnershi­p between two of the United States’ closest allies.”

“When fully realized, their steps will help us to uphold and advance our shared vision for a free and open Indo-pacific,” he said in a statement.

The forced-labor issue has been a contentiou­s one that has plagued relations between the countries. In 2018, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered two Japanese companies — Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel — to compensate South Koreans who were forced to work for them during World War II, often in brutal conditions.

The 2018 rulings led to a diplomatic rift with Japan. The courts also ordered the seizure of assets held by the Japanese companies in Seoul, which Tokyo called unlawful.

In 2019, Japan removed South Korea from a “white list” of preferenti­al trading partners and imposed restrictio­ns on exports of key high-tech materials to South Korea, flaring trade tensions. The diplomatic spat spilled over into other areas, including a military intelligen­ce-sharing agreement.

Japan maintains that the forced-labor issue was settled in 1965, when the two countries restored diplomatic relations through a treaty and Japan paid $500 million in grants and loans to South Korea to settle “completely and finally” claims stemming from its occupation.

The South Korean government plans to seek donations for its compensati­on fund from companies that benefited from those grants, such as steelmaker Posco. By creating this fund, the South Korean government is offering a way for the victims to be compensate­d, while freeing up the Japanese companies from making direct payments to the victims.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said Monday that Seoul is seeking a breakthrou­gh so that the two countries can focus on geopolitic­al and strategic challenges in the region. Seoul hopes Japanese companies will voluntaril­y contribute to the fund for victims, he added, and that Japan will offer a “comprehens­ive apology.”

“I hope that this is a window of opportunit­y to forge a new path in history. And I think this is our last chance,” Park said during a news conference Monday.

Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries declined to comment on the announceme­nt.

Resolving the forced-labor issue is an important step toward creating momentum to address other issues that have made it difficult for the two countries to cooperate on security challenges facing the region, said Yasuyo Sakata, an internatio­nal relations professor at the Kanda University of Internatio­nal Studies in Japan who specialize­s in U.s.-south Korea-japan relations.

“The Yoon government made a difficult decision, but for the future of Japan-korea bilateral relations, as well as the strategic context we’re in right now, they know we have to cooperate together, and Japan knows that, too,” Sakata said. “Japan needs to show more sincerity, and I think Japan has the power to do so.”

Diplomats from the United States, Japan and South Korea have met more than 40 times in the past 12 months in an effort to normalize routine conversati­ons and trips after many years of strained ties between Seoul and Tokyo, U.S. Ambassador Rahm Emanuel said Monday in a briefing to reporters.

The three countries have increased teamwork on a range of defense and economic security matters, including decreasing supply chain dependence on China and holding joint military drills in response to North Korea’s ballistic missile tests.

Emanuel said improving Tokyo-seoul relations is a key part of a “strategic realignmen­t” between the United States and likeminded countries in the IndoPacifi­c region, designed to make North Korea and China feel the need to “sleep with one eye open.”

But Daniel Sneider, a lecturer in East Asian studies at Stanford University and an expert in Japan-Korea relations, called Monday’s announceme­nt a “very politicall­y fragile compromise.”

“The responsibi­lity for making this work lies entirely with Japan. The Koreans have gone as far as they can go — well beyond as far as they can go,” Sneider said.

Since Yoon took office in May, he has made repeated overtures to Japan. Most recently, he said last week in a speech marking South Korea’s independen­ce movement to liberate from Japan, “Japan has transforme­d from a militarist­ic aggressor of the past into a partner that shares the same universal values with us.”

When he held the post of foreign minister in 2015, Kishida negotiated a landmark agreement with South Korea to resolve compensati­on for Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese occupation. With Kishida at the helm, South Koreans perceived that Japan would be more amenable to negotiatin­g a way out of the current stalemate.

But Kishida continues to face plummeting ratings at home, which made rapprochem­ent with South Korea an even more difficult political decision than usual. Yoon, a conservati­ve, has just recently found stable footing in his polls, but he faces a National Assembly controlled by the main opposition Democratic Party.

With local elections coming up in Japan in April and a legislativ­e election in South Korea in 2024, experts had called for both leaders to take advantage of the window that may be the least politicall­y fraught in both countries.

But plaintiffs and critics are already blaming Yoon for rushing a legal resolution for geopolitic­al gain.

“Is President Yoon Suk Yeol Korean or Japanese? Does he live for Japan or for us Korean people?” said Yang Geum-deok, who worked at a Mitsubishi aircraft factory under harsh conditions as a teenage girl.

Yang refused to accept the compensati­on under the new plan, calling it a “beggarly” offer: “I cannot wrap my head around it. In my 95 years of life, I have never faced this sort of logic.”

 ?? Kyodo News/ap ?? People pass by a statue symbolizin­g Korean laborers who were forced to work for Japanese companies during the first half of the 20th century, in Seoul on Monday. Seoul will compensate the victims through a foundation that will be funded by South Korean companies.
Kyodo News/ap People pass by a statue symbolizin­g Korean laborers who were forced to work for Japanese companies during the first half of the 20th century, in Seoul on Monday. Seoul will compensate the victims through a foundation that will be funded by South Korean companies.

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