South Korea’s government has announced a plan to resolve a long-running dispute on compensating people who were forced to work in Japanese factories and mines during World War II.
Monday’s plan, which was met with immediate protests in South Korea but hailed as “historic” by the United States, comes as South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol seeks to mend ties with Japan as North Korea accelerates its nuclear and missiles programmes.
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Unveiling the plan, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin said the former workers, the surviving of whom are now in their 90s, will be compensated through a public foundation funded by private-sector companies rather than by the Japanese firms involved in the forced labour.
The South Korean government had first raised the proposal in January, sparking a backlash from victims and their families because it did not include contributions from Japanese companies, including those ordered by South Korean courts to pay reparations, such as Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
About a dozen protesters demonstrated as Park made the announcement.
“It’s a complete victory by Japan, which has said it cannot pay a single yen on the forced labour issue,” Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer for several victims, said in a Facebook post on Sunday, citing initial media reports of the deal.
The main opposition Democratic Party meanwhile denounced the plan as “submissive diplomacy”.
“It’s a day of shame,” An Ho-young, a spokesperson for the party, said in a statement. “Japanese companies embroiled in war crimes received indulgence without even budging, and the Japanese government managed to remove a trouble by having the grace to repeat past statements.”
The issue of forced labour, as well as that of the enslavement of South Korean women in Japanese military brothels, has bedevilled South Korea-Japan ties for decades. Japan, which occupied the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945, insists all claims relating to the colonial era were resolved in a bilateral treaty signed in 1965 that normalised ties between the two neighbours.
Under the treaty, South Korea — then ruled by the autocratic President Park Chung-hee — received a package of $300m in economic aid and some $500m in loans from Japan.
The agreement set off mass protests nationwide, prompting the government to declare martial law.
Grievances continued to fester, and in 1995, then-Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama issued a statement acknowledging the suffering caused by Japan’s “colonial rule and aggression” and made a “profound apology”, specifically to the women forced into sexual slavery, who are euphemistically known as “comfort women”. Decades later, in 2015, the two countries reached a new settlement on the “comfort women” issue, with Tokyo setting up a 1 billion yen ($9.23m) to help the victims.
But in 2018, former South Korean President Moon Jae-in dissolved the fund, saying it did not do enough to consider victims’ concerns.
That same year, the country’s Supreme Court ordered Japan’s Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compensate 15 of the forced labourers.
The court judgement ratcheted up tensions, with Japan restricting exports of high-tech material to South Korea in 2019, and South Koreans launching a boycott of Japanese goods.
Need for cooperation
The South Korean government said on Monday that its new plan will use a local foundation to accept donations from major South Korean companies, which benefitted from the 1965 reparations package from Japan, to compensate victims.
Park, the South Korean foreign minister, said the plan was key to improving ties between Tokyo and Seoul.
“Cooperation between Korea and Japan is very important in all areas of diplomacy, economy, and security amid the current grave international situation and complex global crisis,” he said. “I believe that the vicious circle should be broken for the sake of the people at the national interest level, rather than leaving the strained relationship unattended for a long time.”
He added, “I hope Japan will positively respond to our major decision today with Japanese companies’ voluntary contributions and a comprehensive apology.”
Shortly after Park’s announcements, the South Korean industry ministry said it was also halting further action on a complaint it had filed at the World Trade Organization over Japan’s export controls on three critical industrial materials. The ministry attributed its moves to an agreement by Seoul and Tokyo to “swiftly conduct bilateral consultations” on the trade restrictions and “bring the situation back to July 2019”.
For its part, the government of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said it welcomed the South Korean announcement and said it stands by past official statements that expressed remorse over Japan’s wartime aggression in Asia, according to the Kyodo news agency. To accommodate Seoul’s request for a voluntary “sincere response,” Tokyo will allow Japanese firms to donate to the South Korean foundation, the agency reported.
“We welcome this as a step that returns Japan-South Korea relations to a healthy one,” said Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi.
A Japanese government source close to Kishida told reporters that the US has been pressing both countries to reconcile but that a main factor that triggered Yoon’s push for reconciliation was the geopolitical threat from North Korea.
Washington also welcomed Monday’s announcements.
In a statement, US President Joe Biden said the moves were a “a groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies” and a “critical step to forge a future for the Korean and Japanese people that is safer, more secure, and more prosperous”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the announcements “historic” and said he was “inspired” by the work South Korea and Japan have done to advance their bilateral relations.
“We applaud President Yoon, Prime Minister Kishida, and their respective administrations for their courage and vision, and call on the international community to join our commendation of this momentous achievement,” he added.