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Korea, Japan on collision course over compensation

Three major Japanese economic organizations on Wednesday expressed “deep concerns” over Korean courts’ recent rulings on compensation for wartime forced labor, arguing they could hurt investment and trade between the two countries.

Japan’s Federation of Economic Organizations, Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and Committee for Economic Development issued a statement, entitled “Toward maintaining and developing amicable Japan-Korea economic ties.”

The statement unnerved Korean victims as it entailed the groups’ basic stance that all compensation issues concerning Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of South Korea were settled under a bilateral normalization pact in 1965.

“The bilateral economic relations have developed smoothly so far based on (the understanding) that all compensation issues were settled completely and ultimately under the bilateral 1965 agreement,” it said.

In the statement, they also called on the two countries’ governments and business circles to work to promptly address the controversial issue to prevent damage to bilateral economic relations.

Japanese firms have long maintained that the bilateral deal between the Seoul and Tokyo governments covered individual victims’ right to claim compensation for their forced labor. Seoul believes that the right remains intact as the government-to-government deal does not settle all issues involving private firms.

The statement came as bilateral ties have been frayed due to Tokyo’s repeated claim to sovereignty over South Korea’s islets of Dokdo, and what Seoul sees as its distortion of historical facts and failure to adequately apologize to those forced into sexual servitude during World War II.

Amid deteriorating ties, President Park Geun-hye has remained reluctant to hold a summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Since her inauguration, she has held summits with leaders of the U.S., China and other countries.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Park said she saw no point in a summit with Abe. Regarding it, deputy chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters Tuesday that Japan was “extremely disappointed.”

As local courts have offered legal grounds to pursue compensation from Japanese firms, Seoul has begun exploring ways, albeit in a low-profile manner, to support the victims of forced labor.

In May last year, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision in favor of nine plaintiffs, who demanded compensation for their forced labor and mental and physical sufferings from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel Corp.

The top court said that Japanese courts’ hitherto rulings against victims could not be upheld as they were based on the premise that the mobilization for forced labor was legitimate during the colonial period. It stressed that the premise itself conflicted with Korea’s core constitutional values, which see the colonization as illegal.

Following this ruling, appellate courts in Seoul and Busan made decisions in July against two Japanese firms in question and demanded compensation for the plaintiffs.

Experts say that should the two firms refuse to make amends, the process to forcibly take properties based in South Korea could proceed, which could deal a considerable blow to bilateral business ties.

According to the Seoul government, the number of Koreans who have reported their experience of forced labor from 2005 to 2008 has topped 220,000. Including their bereaved families, the figure is expected to reach 1 million, observers said.

The right to compensation is inherited by their families when they die. Scholars here claim that the number of Koreans forcibly mobilized by Japan from April 1938 until Korea was liberated in 1945 is around 8 million.

The different interpretations by Seoul and Tokyo of the 1965 deal have long been a diplomatically thorny issue. Many experts here argue that Japan should learn a lesson from Germany in its efforts to make amends with its wartime victims.

The normalization deal came at a time the South was in dire need of economic assistance from outside to spur its development while Japan needed to mend fences with neighboring countries to enhance its postwar status.

Meanwhile, Japanese media reports indicated that Tokyo’s Foreign Ministry’s stances over the issue of wartime sexual enslavement and its territorial claim to Dokdo remain unchanged, despite strong protests from Seoul.

According to the Sankei Shimbun, a recent Japanese Foreign Ministry document said the 2011 ruling by Seoul’s Constitutional Court for Korean women forced into sexual slavery could destroy the foundation of Korea-Japan relations.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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