Solution to forced labor issue won’t please everybody
The ball is in Japan’s court in the forced labor compensation issue, said the Foreign Ministry.
“Basically, there must be some sincere response from Japan, based on which the final solution can be designed at the [Korean] government level,” said a Foreign Ministry official in meeting with reporters in Seoul on Jan. 17.
Asked what would comprise a “sincere response” from Japan, the official said it could include contributions from Japanese companies to a compensation fund Korea intends to set up with donations from Korean companies, and apologies from the Japanese government or companies, “as these are what the victims have requested.”
The requests from forced labor victims and their relatives were conveyed to Tokyo in the latest director-level meeting between the two countries on Jan. 16.
The legal dispute between Tokyo and Seoul on the forced labor issue dates back to 2018.
A landmark ruling on the case came on Oct. 30, 2018, when the Korean Supreme Court ordered Nippon Steel and Sumitomo Metal, renamed Nippon Steel, to pay 100 million won ($78,590) each to Korean victims of Japanese forced labor. 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 with a treaty with Korea in 1965. In that deal, Japan give Korea $300 million in economic aid and $500 million in loans.
Korea’s top court acknowledged the illegality of Japan’s 1919-45 colonial rule and recognized that individuals’ rights to compensation had not expired.
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.
The Foreign Ministry, which since the onset of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration last year has been trying to negotiate between the victims and Japan to improve diplomatic relations with Tokyo, saw this an opportunity to intervene.
It submitted an argument to the Supreme Court last August to “consider the diplomatic efforts” it has made with Japan in recent months before it rules.
The ministry then held several meetings with victims and experts before holding a public hearing on Jan. 12, proposing that instead of liquidating the Japanese corporate assets, the government and Korean companies could step in as third parties 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, at the hearing. “We think this could provide a legal breakthrough on the issue.”
The ministry proposed that a fund could be set up by a government-supported foundation to receive voluntary donations from Korean companies that benefited from the 1965 treaty and economic aid from Japan. This fund would then be used to compensate the victims.
Some relatives of victims present at the hearing said they would like to take this proposal, while others didn’t approve.
“Even I if I die tomorrow, I will not be taking the dirty money from Korea,” said Yang Geum-deok, a 94-year-old forced labor victim, in a press conference in Gwangju last Tuesday.
Yang is one of five forced labor victims who sued Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
Today, only she and another victim survive. They have consistently called for liquidation of the company’s assets for their compensation.
In a rally before the Foreign Ministry building in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul last Wednesday, civic groups supporting victims of forced labor demanded the ministry retract its proposal.
“Why should Korean companies take on the responsibility to compensate the victims, which is completely Japan’s?” asked Lee Guk-eon, who heads a civic group supporting the forced labor victims, at the rally.
The rallying groups submitted a statement to the Foreign Ministry last Wednesday in which they criticized the plan and asked the government to “stop trying to reach a quick solution for the sake of Korea-U.S.-Japan and Korea-Japan military cooperation.”
One of Yoon administration’s foreign policy objectives is improvement of ties with Japan and closer military cooperation with both Japan and the United States.
There have been reports that, behind closed doors, Tokyo and Seoul may have reached an agreement to improve relations after a certain sequence of events: Korea officially establishing a forced labor compensation fund, followed by Japan lifting export restrictions on Korea and normalization of high-level exchanges, multiple diplomatic sources told the JoongAng Ilbo last week.
Since the court rulings in 2018, Japan removed Korea from its “white list” of trading partners and instituted export restrictions that hurt Korea’s semiconductor industry. In return, Korea threatened to pull out of a military intelligence sharing pact with Japan.
“Once the Japanese government moves, the companies are also likely to move in sync,” a diplomatic source told the JoongAng Ilbo on Jan. 16. “There seem to be some agreement within political circles in Japan that if Korea, with great difficulty, comes through with the proposal, that Japan shouldn’t just sit there and watch.”
Some experts are looking for a breakthrough.
“If the Japanese companies agree to contribute to the fund, then we have a totally different story,” Lee Won-deok, a professor of Japanese studies at Kookmin University, told the JoongAng Ilbo on Jan. 16.
BY ESTHER CHUNG,LEE YOUNG-HEE AND PARK HYUN-JU [email@example.com]