On March 6, South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin announced a proposal to address and resolve disputes over wartime forced labor, which have put a strain on bilateral relations with Japan.
Under former South Korean President Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s relationship with Japan reached its lowest point in years, with historical grievances, namely Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910-45, at the forefront of the conflict. In 2018, the South Korean Supreme Court ruled in support of 15 Korean plaintiffs who accused two Japanese companies of forcibly mobilizing them for hard labor during World War II. The Japanese companies, Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, were ordered by the Supreme Court to directly compensate the victims.
The two companies have refused to comply with the Supreme Court’s orders and have not compensated the 15 plaintiffs. The Japanese government maintains that all issues stemming from its colonization of Korea were resolved under a 1965 bilateral agreement signed between the two countries. The 1965 agreement normalized diplomatic ties between Korea and Japan, and it included $500 million in “economic cooperation” loans and grants to companies in Seoul.
At the pinnacle of the dispute between the two countries, Japanese officials criticized the Moon administration for continuing to change the goalposts for reconciling past grievances by bringing up the forced labor issue and sexual slavery of Korean women during the occupation and war.
Tensions between the two countries soon spilled into trade relations. Since 2019, Japan has restricted the trade of semiconductor material exports to South Korea, causing global panic given the interconnectedness of the manufacturing supply chain for semiconductors. The restrictions are widely seen as retaliation for the court ruling, although Japan insists there is no connection.
When current President Yoon Suk-yeol took office in 2022, he pledged to pursue a future-oriented approach to relations with Japan, hinting at a dramatic shift from the Moon administration’s insistence on Japanese reparations. In order to rebuild South Korea’s deteriorated relationship with Japan, Yoon officials have proposed a plan that would bypass the 2018 Supreme Court’s order that the Japanese companies directly compensate victims. The two countries have reached an agreement where victims of forced labor would be compensated using donations made to the Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization, a Seoul-backed public foundation that was established in 2014.
The Yoon administration plans to seek donations from South Korean companies that benefited from the “economic cooperation” loans and grants from Japan as part of the bilateral treaty signed in 1965. This includes companies like the major South Korean steelmaker POSCO. The funds collected through the foundation would be used to compensate plaintiffs who win pending cases related to the forced labor disputes.
Rather than the Japanese companies directly compensating former Korean laborers, as ordered by the South Korean Supreme Court in 2018, Tokyo would instead allow Japanese firms to voluntarily provide donations to the foundation. There is also an expectation and hope that the Japanese government, in line with a 1998 joint declaration by former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and former Prime Minister Obuchi Keizo, would express remorse for the “horrendous damage and pain” inflicted under Japanese colonial rule.
Other elements of the proposal include a tentative plan for South Korea’s major business lobby, the Federation of Korean Industries, and its Japanese counterpart, Keidanran, to create a “future youth fund” to sponsor scholarships for students. There has also been talking about the Japanese government lifting the 2019 ban on semiconductor material exports to South Korea, and putting the country back on a “whitelist” of trusted trade partners that receive preferential trade treatment. However, the Japanese foreign minister has emphasized that the trade restrictions on South Korea and the forced labor issue are two separate matters.
Finally, officials from both countries are considering resuming the practice of their leaders making yearly visits to the other country. This practice was suspended in 2011, after former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko argued over the “comfort women” issue.
United States President Joe Biden and other U.S. officials responded positively to the plan, calling the announcements “a groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies.” The trilateral relationship between the United States, South Korea, and Japan has been crucial for U.S. security interests in the region, especially in light of an increasingly belligerent Kim Jong Un in North Korea and the rising power of China. The historical disputes that impeded the relationship between South Korea and Japan negatively affected this cooperation, with former President Moon even threatening to withdraw Seoul from a military information-sharing pact with Tokyo at the height of the tensions.
The U.S. has long pushed its two allies to deepen their bilateral cooperation, so it naturally applauded this plan for addressing a major issue in the Japan-South Korea relationship. However, as the U.S. has consistently hesitated to speak out on the historical disputes between South Korea and Japan, some in Seoul have criticized Washington for not making a clear demand toward Tokyo to take full responsibility for the wrongs imperial Japan committed against innocent South Korean civilians in the past.
While Washington and Tokyo welcomed the plan, there was immediate backlash from some sections of the public and the opposition parties in South Korea. Some of the victims and their families are vehemently opposing the government’s plan to forcefully wrap up the years-long disputes with Japan due to Tokyo’s unchanged stance on the issue. Victims’ groups criticized the deal back when it was first introduced in January of this year, demanding that payment should come directly from Japan.
Similar concerns about the lack of a direct apology and financial recompense from the Japanese government scuttled a previous breakthrough in bilateral historical issues, a 2015 agreement that was supposed to “finally and irreversibly” settle the “comfort women” issue.
The main opposition Democratic Party has denounced the forced labor compensation plan as “submissive diplomacy” that allows the Japanese government and the accused Japanese companies a free pass.
“I will never get begging money,” Yang Geum-deok, 95, one of the three living forced labor victims, said hours after Park’s announcement on Monday. She clearly opposed the Yoon administration’s plan to bypass the Supreme Court’s ruling and emphasized that Japan’s sincere apologies should be taken in the first place before making any moves.
“Is President Yoon a South Korean or Japanese? I really cannot understand and have not seen such things in my entire 95-year life,” Yang said.