“Thousands of kilometers from their homeland, there were Koreans on the South Pacific islands. They were civilian laborers who built bases for Japanese forces and at times were driven into battle as cannon fodder.”
The narration opens “Koreans in the Pacific War,” a KBS documentary based on declassified material from the US National Archives and Records Administration. The 40-minute film, produced in 2021, mostly consists of United News film footage. It traces US Marines capturing the Japanese-occupied Pacific islands during the last years of World War II. Their conquests included Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Tinian, where a B-29 left on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, for Hiroshima, Japan, and dropped the first atomic bomb in history. Each island had Korean “seabees,” or construction battalion members.
“On the island of Tarawa, there were many Koreans -- workers forced to labor in slavery by their Japanese masters,” the original English narration says. “There were some 2,700 to 3,100 Japanese personnel and 400 to 600 Korean laborers. Japs captured totaled 99, and Koreans 165.”
Most of the prisoners on the captured islands were Koreans. The Japanese, whether military personnel or civilians, and often the locals as well, were ordered to resist to the last moment or commit suicide instead of surrendering to the enemy.
According to statistics at the National Archives of Korea, a total of 363,465 Koreans were mobilized from 1939 to 1945 to serve for the Japanese military as combatants or civilian laborers in and outside of the Korean Peninsula. They were among nearly 8 million Koreans (about one-third of the total population at the time) forcibly mobilized under the Full National Mobilization Act, which was promulgated on April 1, 1938, to assist Imperial Japan’s war efforts. Of these, 1,390,063 served outside of Korea.
Given the grim historical truth, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi’s denial of his country’s use of wartime forced labor is flabbergasting. On March 9, while responding to a question from a right-wing lawmaker at a Diet committee session, Hayashi said, “Forced labor is not an appropriate expression because whichever (mobilization) is not applicable to the forced labor defined by the Forced Labor Convention.”
He added the Japanese government would maintain its consistent position that the issue of forced mobilization was settled “completely and finally” with the 1965 claims agreement on Japan’s colonial rule over Korea. Thus, he poured cold water on Seoul’s effort to resolve the long-pending issue of wartime forced labor through a third-party reimbursement -- an olive branch offered to help hoist Seoul-Tokyo relations from rock bottom and pave the way for future-oriented partnership amid the ongoing shift in the international order.
The Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor of the International Labor Organization, adopted in 1930 and ratified by Japan by 1932, stipulates that “the term forced or compulsory labor shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”
The Treaty on Basic Relations between Korea and Japan, signed in 1965, confirmed that “all treaties or agreements concluded between the Empire of Japan and the Empire of Korea on or before Aug. 22, 1910 are already null and void.” This automatically renders the Full National Mobilization Act, enforced by the Japanese Government-General in Korea, null and void. The Supreme Court’s ruling of 2018 ordering two Japanese war criminal companies -- Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel -- to pay damages to 15 litigants is also based on the premise that Japan’s annexation of Korea was unlawful, as well as 21st century norms and expectations about a victim-centered process in crimes against humanity.
Just three days before Hayashi’s remark, Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin announced a plan to compensate the litigants, of whom three remain alive, through a local foundation. According to the plan, Korean companies which benefited from the 1965 claims agreement would donate the funding and Japanese employers would be absolved. The victims and civil society strongly objected, but Park said that he hoped Japan would “fill the water cup, which is now more than half full.” However, the subsequent summit between President Yoon Suk Yeol and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on March 16 fell far short.
Apart from succeeding the historical revisionism of Shinzo Abe, his late mentor, Kishida is known for political caution and timidity. Yoon obviously was overly optimistic in thinking he could extract an apology or that Kishida would persuade Japanese companies to provide funds. He only received carefully measured rhetoric. Post-summit reports by Japanese media contend that Kishida even raised other sensitive issues, such as territorial sovereignty over the Dokdo islets and the reparation for victims of Japan’s military sexual slavery. Yoon’s office denies the reports, stoking doubts about its honesty.
Yoon has reiterated that in pursuing better relations with Japan, he inherits the spirit of the 1998 Korea-Japan Partnership toward the 21st Century. Recognized as a watershed in bilateral relations, the declaration was based on the mutual trust and respect between President Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. It said both countries should “squarely face the past and develop relations based on mutual understanding and trust.” Not only Kishida, but also Yoon is asked whether he is prepared to face history squarely and grasp the nettle.
The declaration goes on, “Looking back on the relations between Japan and the Republic of Korea during this century, Prime Minister Obuchi regarded in a spirit of humility the fact of history that Japan caused, during a certain period in the past, tremendous damage and suffering to the people of the Republic of Korea through its colonial rule, and expressed his deep remorse and heartfelt apology for this fact.”
This marked the crest of Japan’s apologies for its brutal rule of Korea. Japan has since revised its position, shirking its responsibility and blaming Korea for “changing the goalposts.” Japan, on its part, must answer whether it has even stayed on the field.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.