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Wartime labor dispute still remains as hurdle to Yoon-Kishida meeting

‘Low public support undermines Yoon’ s effort to end feud with Japan’

Nov. 28, 2022 - 18:32 By Choi Si-young
The South Korean (left) and Japanese flags. (123rf)

An unresolved dispute over compensating South Koreans forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II is likely to be the source of unease preventing the two leaders from meeting for some time, experts said Monday shortly after Seoul quickly downplayed speculation over a potential summit taking place by the end of the year.

Seoul and Tokyo are working to reset their strained ties as President Yoon Suk-yeol -- who came to office in May vowing to address the issue -- steps up efforts to deliver on the promise by reaching a deal in person with his Japanese counterpart. Yoon’s envoy for Japan raised such hopes, saying over the weekend a trip to Japan by the president was a possibility, but Yoon’s office essentially walked back the remarks.

The discord within the Yoon government is the latest sign Seoul and Tokyo are still at odds over finding a “middle ground” where Japan offers a “heart-felt apology” to the victims while paying damages -- a scenario Tokyo has refused to entertain, saying their 1965 agreement, which normalized diplomatic relations, had already done that. Japan has also rejected Korea’s Supreme Court ruling in 2018 that said the victims are still entitled to their compensation.

But the impasse has also to do with the fact that Yoon’s office draws little support for whatever plans Yoon has to end the feud once and for all, according to Jin Chang-soo, director of the center for Japanese studies at the Sejong Institute.

A September poll by a local think tank found eight out of ten Koreans agreed with mending ties but many Koreans still find disagreeable any plans including the current on the table, which they believe involve less of a “sincere apology” and more of monetary compensation.

“Whatever the plans are and which way they lean, Yoon needs public consensus before he can float something that he can really shake hands on at the summit,” Jin said.

Meanwhile, Park Cheol-hee, a professor of international studies at Seoul National University, advised the Yoon government against making a rushed decision on any summit, saying setting a deadline on the issue was not the best approach to finding a way out of the dispute.

“Who knows what will happen before we run out the deadline?” Park said, noting officials would be pressured to force down what they think is best for the wartime labor victims -- an oversight Park says would be a repeat of a 2015 deal on “comfort women” or Korean women forced into sexual slavery for Japan during World War II.

Calling the agreement half measures to console the victims, Seoul essentially abandoned the settlement three years later when it disbanded the joint fund established to compensate the victims.