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S. Korean foundation to compensate victims of Japan’s forced labor

Exclusion of Japanese companies from compensation plan prompts backlash amid calls for closure

By Choi Si-young

Published : March 6, 2023 - 15:54

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Foreign Minister Park Jin (center) speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on Monday, about the South Korean government’s solution for addressing the issue of compensation for Japan’s wartime forced labor. (Joint Press Corps) Foreign Minister Park Jin (center) speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on Monday, about the South Korean government’s solution for addressing the issue of compensation for Japan’s wartime forced labor. (Joint Press Corps)

South Korea said Monday it will compensate Korean victims forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II while awaiting Japanese participation in a potential fund meant to bolster ties, a decision that comes as Seoul looks to project global power by moving beyond a regional rivalry.

The settlement, revealed by Foreign Minister Park Jin, is a “practical compromise” in the face of Japan’s refusal to recognize Korea’s 2018 Supreme Court ruling holding Japanese companies liable for damages. Fighting the global challenges pressing South Korea, like North Korea’s nuclear threats and the US-China tech rivalry, requires closer Seoul-Tokyo relations, according to President Yoon Suk Yeol, a conservative leader that openly champions a quick deal.

The compromise, made in the face of “numerous difficulties,” was the result of the “resolve on a future-oriented South Korea-Japan relationship,” Yoon was quoted as saying by presidential spokesperson Lee Do-woon.

For that to take place, the two Asian rivals essentially agreed that Korean companies affected by tie rebuilding in 1965 following Japan’s 1910-45 rule of the Korean Peninsula pay the victims, while Japanese firms potentially join a separate joint scholarship fund for Koreans and the Japanese government reaffirms its past apologies for its colonial rule. Tokyo says the 1965 agreement, which helped Seoul to grow companies and the economy, supersedes the 2018 ruling.

“In every area from security to economy, we have to work with Japan closely, given the global political landscape and a series of complex crises around it. It is in our best interest to start mending the frayed ties with Japan. This is our last opportunity to see that happen,” Park said noting he has Yoon’s full confidence in closing the deal.

During last week’s public address marking Independence Movement Day, Yoon called Japan a “partner to work with” -- a considerably generous description of the country on an occasion when Yoon’s predecessors had urged it to look back on its wrongs during the colonial period.

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi welcomed Monday’s decision to end the decades-old dispute, saying the government upholds its latest public apology that former Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and Korean President Kim Dae-jung jointly made in 1998. The two leaders then set the terms for a new Korea-Japan partnership, discussing Japan’s “genuine reflection on its wartime past and sincere apology for it.”

Hayashi did not articulate the exact words in the declaration, a clear indication he was toning down the first ever official apology Japan released in 1998 just for Korea among its other former colonies. Nor did the foreign minister specifically discuss a “separate joint scholarship fund” because that is an issue involving the “private sector.”

Seoul is an important neighbor to work with, Hayashi said referring to upgrading three-way security ties that include the US, the biggest ally of both South Korea and Japan. The US-led military coalition has been seeking to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

US President Joe Biden praised the two allies’ efforts for taking a “step to forge a future” that is “safer, more secure and more prosperous” in a statement released by the White House. The deal that has potentially brought closure helps advance a shared vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region, Biden added, referring to the US plan to rally democratic allies in the region against China.

“As we move ahead, I look forward to continuing to strengthen and enhance the trilateral ties between the Republic of Korea, Japan and the United States,” the statement read, citing South Korea’s official name

A string of summits beginning as early as March is a chance for Yoon to build on such ties. Yoon’s trip to Japan followed by a US tour in April to meet with his counterparts is what the Yoon administration officials believe will mark a new leap as Korea joins initiatives affecting international rule-setting. An invitation to a G-7 meeting Tokyo hosts in May will be the highlight of Seoul’s efforts for global impact.

Kim Sung-han, Yoon’s national security adviser, declined to reveal details involving back-to-back summits. The March trip to Japan and April tour to the US are two separate items still under discussion, according to Kim, who is in Washington for a five-day trip that started Sunday. The trip comes ahead of marking 70 years of Seoul-Washington ties in October.

But the Yoon government faces an uphill battle at home over dealing with mounting backlash accusing the administration of being overly soft on Japan, a country critics say has to pay for what it did, however small that may be.

Lim Jae-sung, the attorney who won the landmark 2018 Supreme Court case, publicly downplayed the significance of Monday’s settlement. During consultations with Japan dating back to May last year, the Korean government had reached out to Lim for input from the victims and their families. The lawyer routinely claimed that little was done to actually reflect victims’ concerns.

“The Japanese haven’t paid a penny. … It’s a complete victory for them,” Lim said Monday, calling a joint scholarship fund a total non sequitur because it unduly releases Japan from any and all burdens of blame.

Reaffirming past apologies are no more relevant, Lim noted, because that is not an apology for this particular case and that Japan would not reverse the current position that there was nothing illegal in the way labor was organized at the time.

“The victims alive today had all rejected to agree to what the government proposed,” Lim said referring to three complainants out of the 15 affected by the 2018 ruling. Many more are still fighting similar court battles.

Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, also dismissed the settlement, saying it marks the most humiliating defeat in Korean history. Korea-Japan ties had dipped to a new low before the conservative Yoon government took over in May last year, because Lee’s progressive party refused to float a similar version of what Yoon proposed Monday.

“The Yoon government is letting Japan walk free despite its wartime crimes and we won’t let that happen. … We will make sure of that with our fellow Koreans,” Lee said.