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Consultative group suggest third party take Japanese firms’ liability in wartime forced labor case

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin holds hands of Lee Choon-sik, 98-year-old survivor of wartime forced labor, in Gwangju on Friday. (Yonhap)
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin holds hands of Lee Choon-sik, 98-year-old survivor of wartime forced labor, in Gwangju on Friday. (Yonhap)

South Korea's Foreign Ministry said Tuesday it will review the various suggestions and opinions raised in the consultative group it formed to find solutions to the wartime forced labor issue involving Japanese companies and Korean workers, and vowed to come up with a solution soon.

The ministry also said it has not yet set a deadline for when it would present a government solution to the legal dispute, which has risen as a major point of political friction with Japan. 

The ministry's response denied a report on Tuesday in the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun. The report cited a high-ranking Korean official saying that the South Korean government will come up with a final solution to resolve the dispute related to the forced-labor issue by October.

"The government will review the suggestions made at the government-private consultative group and come up with a rational way (to resolve the dispute) as soon as we can, with a sense of responsibility," Lim Soo-suk, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said in a regular press briefing.

During the fourth meeting of the government-private consultative group on Monday, the participants -- including government officials, Japan experts and lawyers -- suggested that a third party could take the financial liability of Japanese firms ordered to provide compensation for forcing Koreans into labor during wartime, as a way to resolve the prolonged dispute.

The group also shared the view that the idea of “subrogation payment,” or the Korean government using the state budget to pay the victims and ask for Japanese companies for reimbursement later, is not appropriate.

Seoul’s Foreign Ministry launched the consultative group in July to gather opinions of experts and victims before Seoul’s Supreme Court delivers a final ruling on the case, in which Korean victims seek liquidation of two Japanese firms’ assets. The firms have been ordered to provide compensation for forcing the victims into labor during Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945.

The court rulings in favor of the Korean victims have come to strain bilateral ties with Japan, which rejects the firms’ liability. Japan argues that all claims related to its annexation of Korea were settled once and for all by an agreement signed in 1965.

During Monday’s meeting, the participants raised the idea of a third party assuming the Japanese firms’ liability -- not by canceling their obligation, but by creating a new debt contract with the creditor. In this case, the creditors are the Korean victims who are plaintiffs in the suit.

Accordingly, this would guarantee that the financial obligation imposed on the Japanese firms by the Korean court can be fulfilled without obtaining the permission of the creditors.

The experts, however, said that it would be inappropriate for the government to become a third party to take on the Japanese firms’ liability. Instead, new or existing civic foundations could step up to form a new debt contract with the Japanese firms and collect donations.

While the Yoon Suk-yeol administration is tasked with addressing the victims’ demands for sincere apologies from the Japanese firms, it is striving to find a solution that can avoid the liquidation of the Japanese firms’ assets, as it seeks to revive long-strained relations with Japan.

As the consultative group discussed ways to fulfill the court’s ruling with minimal damage, they also agreed that the Korean government should ramp up efforts to elicit some kind of an apology from the Japanese side, whether it be from the Japanese government or the companies.

The fourth meeting of the consultative group, presided over by First Vice Minister Cho Hyun-dong, was practically the last to take place with limited participants, according to the Foreign Ministry official. The official said there could be additional meetings, but the format would be different, such as an expanded meting involving more participants.

By Jo He-rim (