South Korea on Monday announced a contentious plan to raise local civilian funds to compensate Koreans who won damages in lawsuits against Japanese companies that enslaved them during World War II.
The plan reflects conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s determination to mend frayed ties with Japan and solidify a trilateral Seoul-Tokyo-Washington security cooperation to better cope with North Korea’s nuclear threats. But it's drawn an immediate backlash from former forced labourer and their supporters, who have demanded direct compensation from the Japanese companies.
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin told a televised news conference the victims would be compensated through a local foundation that would be funded by civilian donations. He said South Korea and Japan were at a “new window of opportunity” to overcome their past conflicts and build future-oriented relations.
“And I think this is the last opportunity,” Mr. Park said. “If we compare it to a glass of water, (I) think that the glass is more than half full with water. We expect that the glass will be further filled moving forward based on Japan’s sincere response.”
Observers had earlier said the foundation would be funded by South Korean companies, which benefited from a 1965 Seoul-Tokyo treaty that normalized their relations. The accord was accompanied by hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid and loans from Tokyo to Seoul that were used in development projects carried out by major South Korean companies, including POSCO, now a global steel giant.
Ties between the U.S. Asian allies have long been complicated by grievances related to Japan’s brutal rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 when hundreds of thousands of Koreans were mobilized as forced laborers for Japanese companies or sex slaves at Tokyo’s wartime brothels.
Their history disputes intensified after South Korea’s Supreme Court in 2018 ordered two Japanese companies— Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries— to compensate former Korean forced laborers or their bereaved relatives.
Japan, which insists all wartime compensation issues were settled under the 1965 treaty, reacted furiously to the 2018 rulings, placing export controls on chemicals vital to South Korea’s semiconductor industry in 2019, citing the deterioration of bilateral trust.
South Korea, then governed by Yoon’s liberal predecessor Moon Jae-in, accused Japan of weaponizing trade and subsequently threatened to terminate a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo, a major symbol of their three-way security cooperation with Washington.
The Seoul-Tokyo feuding complicated U.S. efforts to reinforce its cooperation with its two key Asian allies in the face of confrontations with China and North Korea. Worries about their strained ties have grown as North Korea last year adopted an escalatory nuclear doctrine and test-launched more than 70 missiles— the most-ever for a single year.
Since taking office in May last year, Mr. Yoon has been seeking to improve ties with Japan and strengthen its military alliance with the United States and a trilateral Seoul-Washington-Tokyo security cooperation.
Former forced labourers, their supporters, and liberal opposition lawmakers berated the government plan, calling it a diplomatic surrender. Some activists supporting former forced laborers plan to hold rallies later Monday.
“Basically, the money of South Korean companies would be used to erase the forced laborers’ rights to receivables,” Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer who represented some of the plaintiffs, wrote on Facebook. “This is an absolute win by Japan, which insists it cannot spend 1 yen on the forced labour issue.”
Blinken hails ‘historic’ S. Korea announcement on Japan
U.S. top diplomat Antony Blinken on Sunday applauded plans announced by South Korea to compensate victims of Japan’s forced wartime labor, as Seoul looks to forge closer ties with Tokyo.
South Korea and Japan are “two of the United States’ most important allies, and we are inspired by the work they have done to advance their bilateral relations,” the Secretary of State said in a statement.
The trilateral relationship is “central to our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” he added.
“We applaud (Seoul and Tokyo) for their courage and vision, and call on the international community to join our commendation of this momentous achievement.”