South Korea reveals plan to heal long rift with Tokyo over forced labor

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s government on Monday announced a new plan to resolve a long-running historical division with Japan and end a complex and emotive spat on wartime forced labor that drove bilateral relations to all-time lows in 2018.

The rift between the two East Asian nations, rooted in history, culture and law, has complicated bilateral ties for decades and long frustrated U.S. policymakers seeking to forge a united front with its key regional allies to the threats posed by North Korea and China.

But some South Koreans who say they were subject to abuses by Japanese occupying forces up through World War II, are angry and protests against the proposed settlement have already taken place in Seoul. A leading expert is also warning the resolution of the legal dispute on forced labor by political means raises serious constitutional issues as well.

Monday’s announcement is “aimed at moving toward a future-oriented relationship between South Korea and Japan,” South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said in a statement.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida added the plan will help to restore “healthy ties” between Tokyo and Seoul, labeling South Korea “an important partner.”

With tensions with North Korea and China both on the rise in recent months, the Biden administration was quick to welcome the news of a deal.

“Today’s announcements between the Republic of Korea and Japan mark a groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies,” President Biden said in a statement released by the White House. The “historic” accord, he predicted, would make Japan and Korea “safer, more secure and more prosperous.”

In a bit of a diplomatic fudge, funding for a new compensation package will come from a local state-run foundation that would be funded by civilian donations, including money from South Korean companies that benefited from past Japanese reparations payments. Japanese companies will be encouraged to make “voluntary contributions” to the fund as well.

“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,” South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin told a televised news conference.

But it was clearly not a done deal in South Korea, where powerful groups have long contended Japan has not done enough to atone for the abuses its officials and forces committed, in particular the recruitment of South Koreans as “comfort women” for Japanese troops during World War II.

Lee Jae-myung of the left-wing opposition Democratic Party of Korea, said the plan was “betraying historical justice” and represented “the biggest humiliation and stain in diplomatic history.”

And Lim Jae-sung, a lawyer for who represents some of the plaintiffs calling for more Japanese concessions, described the new plan as an “absolute win by Japan, which insists it cannot spend 1 yen” on forced laborers. He told reporters in Seoul his legal team will press ahead with a plan to effectively seize the Japanese corporate assets in South Korea to fund reparation payments.

Deep roots

For decades, Seoul-Tokyo relations have been bedeviled by historical grievances related to Imperial Japan’s rule of the Korean peninsula between 1910 and 1945. 

South Koreans complain that Japan has not apologized sincerely, or compensated sufficiently for its brutal colonial period. Given the silence on wartime crimes in Japanese textbooks and the actions of some politicians, they argue that Japanese leaders are not contrite.

Japanese say no compensation or apologies are sufficient to satisfy Koreans, who continue to move the goalposts by blocking compensation and reneging on previous deals that were meant to put the conflict to rest.

In 2018, these endless rows leapt from a historical dispute into an even messier fight in the legal, economic and security domains.

That year, South Korean courts ordered two Japanese companies, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel, to compensate Koreans who were forced to work for the firms during World War II. When the companies did not comply, courts seized their Korea-based assets as compensation.

An angry Tokyo argued that the courts were in breach of a landmark treaty on diplomatic normalization, and had ignored a related compensation package between the two governments that had stood for over half a century.

In 1965, Japan transferred to Korea some $800 million in grants and soft loans, the result of years of negotiations on how much was owed to the laborers. The Seoul government of the day took the Japanese cash but did not pay it out,  instead using it as development capital to build up the economy.

According to South Korean press reports Monday, South Korean companies which benefited from the 1965 payout, including such prominent firms as steelmaker POSCO, will contribute to a new fund for the surviving laborers. Japanese media say some Japanese firms may also pay into the fund as a goodwill gesture.

The 2018 dispute showed the depth of feeling on both sides, and what can happen when the underlying tension erupts on the surface.

Following the 2018 rulings, an angry Japan slowed exports of key chemicals for South Korean industry, and removed Seoul from its list of preferential trade partners. Korea retaliated by removing Japan from its trade “white list,” and citizens organized boycotts of Japanese products.

Just hours after the proposal was revealed Monday, South Korean and Japanese trade officials simultaneously announced plans for talks to restore their trade relations. South Korea’s Trade Ministry said it decided to suspend its case before the World Trade Organization over the Japanese trade curbs, the Associated Press reported.

The 2018 clash came on the heels of another sharp dispute just three years earlier, pitting the left-wing administration of President Moon Jae-in in Seoul and the right-wing government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo in a dispute that sent bilateral ties plummeting.

In a bilateral 2015 deal, Abe had issued an apology to Korea “comfort women” — South Korean women who served in Japanese military brothels, often due to coercion or trickery — and offered a monetary payment. Though most surviving comfort women accepted the deal, the Moon administration froze the fund due to the opposition of a small, but vocal group of victims, angering Abe.

The dispute spilled over into the security realm.

A Japanese warship left a Korean naval review due to disputes over its “Rising Sun” ensign. Then, a patrolling Korean destroyer lit up a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft with its target radar, which it insisted was buzzing it. A subsequent move by Korea to withdraw from a joint U.S.-South Korean-Japanese intelligence-sharing pact was only halted under pressure from Washington.

Improving relations with Japan was a central campaign promise of Mr. Yoon, who was elected to succeed Mr. Moon last year. After almost a year of diplomatic bargaining, Mr. Yoon appears to have delivered, but the deal is not quite done.

Problems ahead

Some say the agreement will still be tested given the depth of emotion in some pockets of South Korean society.

“Moon and Abe really screwed things up,” said Haruko Satoh, who teaches Japan’s relations with Asia at the Osaka School of Public Policy. “Now people on both sides think the other side is being unreasonable, and getting them to bring down their fists won’t be easy.”

According to South Korean media, some of the elderly forced laborers — and the civic groups and umbrella unions that support them — have already come out against the deal.

“People want a solution, but this looks like just another top-down decision,” said Park Dong-suk, an expert on Japan-Korea ties who studied international relations at  Seoul’s Sogang University. “These resolutions have not worked in the past, so why should they work now?”

And some say that, given the supposed firewall between political and judicial spheres, Mr. Yoon’s move may not pass constitutional muster.

“There are no precedents for this,” said Shin Hee-seok, legal advisor to the Transitional Justice Working Group, an NGO. “So there are constitutional questions hanging over it.”

Mr. Shin said the road ahead legally was unclear. “Korean judges are very cautious now; they underestimated what a big issue this would be,” he said.

But he also noted also that South Korea’s customary anti-Japanese sentiment appears to have eased in the last two years as tensions with China have risen.

— This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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