Ministry’s forced labor hearing degenerates into shouting match
Almost all speakers at a hearing by the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on Thursday on the forced labor issue were interrupted by forced labor victims and civic groups, becoming a succession of shouting matches.
“What kind of a public hearing is it if the victims don’t get to speak?” said Kim In-chan, a 71-year-old relative of a victim. Kim said he boarded a train in Danyang County, North Chungcheong, in the early morning hours to get to the hearing at the National Assembly in Seoul.
He was shouting into the air to anyone who would listen. Eventually, the moderator ended the forum with a curtailed question-and-answer session due to the chaos.
The Foreign Ministry held the hearing to canvass public opinion on the vexing issue of Korean victims of forced labor by Japan and how to compensate them decades later.
On Thursday, the ministry again put forward a solution that has been protested by victims: the creation of special fund of Korean corporate donations to compensate the victims.
“Through our discussions with the victims and experts, we’ve seen that the chances of liquidation of Japanese corporate assets to compensate all victims are slim, and we’ve discovered that it is possible for a third party to legally compensate the victims instead,” said Seo Min-jung, director general for Asia and Pacific affairs of the Foreign Ministry, the diplomat in charge of negotiations with Japan on the issue. “We think this could provide a legal breakthrough on the issue.”
At the center of the issue is a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in Korea on Oct. 30, 2018 ordering Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal, renamed Nippon Steel, to pay 100 million won ($80,270) each to Korean victims of Japanese forced labor during World War II. The Supreme Court made a similar ruling on Nov. 29, 2018 against Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
Japan protested the decision, claiming that all compensation issues related to its colonial rule were resolved through a treaty with Korea in 1965. Japan gave Korea $300 million in economic aid and $500 million in loans with that treaty.
Both Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi refused to comply with the top court’s decisions, and the victims filed another case requesting the liquidation of assets of two Japanese companies to compensate forced labor victims.
The Supreme Court in Korea has yet to rule on the latest case.
Some representatives of victims who sat as panelists at the hearing on Thursday dismissed the Foreign Ministry’s proposed legal solution.
“The proposed options for solutions should be clear on who is being held responsible to compensate the victims,” said Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer representing the victims in the cases against Nippon Steel and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. “The current proposal from the Korean Foreign Ministry is about compensating the victims by establishing a de-facto state fund supported by Korean companies.
“There is zero participation from Japan in this proposal,” he said. “I want to know why the Korean government is so intent on pushing through with this proposal when the victims have already said no.”
The victims that Lim is representing boycotted the hearing on Thursday to protest the proposal.
A rift between the Foreign Ministry and the victims group started when the ministry in August 2022 submitted an argument to the Supreme Court to take into account the diplomatic efforts the ministry was making to try to reach a solution with Japan when deciding its ruling.
“That was a total ambush, there was no discussion with the victims, and that’s when the ministry lost the trust of the victims” Lim said at Thursday’s hearing.
There was also division among different victims’ groups at the hearing on Thursday. Some said they would like to get any form of compensation and could care less where the money came from.
“I think we need to consider all the victims and their families involved, not just those who have won the Supreme Court case,” said Han Moon-soo, son of a forced labor victim who runs a foundation to support forced labor victims.
“So many of us have been ignored by the government over the years. We will take the current ministry proposal, but what we need is a comprehensive recognition by the government of the forced labor victims. And for that we want a special law drafted to recognize our sacrifice.”
There were a number of government proposals to compensate the victims unilaterally from the Korean side, but they were sporadic and not comprehensive. From 1975 to 1977, the government provided some 300,000 won in compensation per victim who died doing forced labor in Japan. A total of 8,552 victims were compensated.
In 2010, there was another government scheme to compensate some forced labor victims, including those who died, were injured, or went missing during their forced labor in Japan.
At least 1,815 forced labor survivors were identified to be alive as of 2022, which was a drastic drop from around 2,400 in 2021, according to the Foreign Ministry. Many of the victims are in their 80s and 90s.
The Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan places the total number of Koreans forcibly mobilized by Japan on the Korean Peninsula, in Japan and parts of China between 1910 and 1945 at 7,534,429.
BY ESTHER CHUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]