The Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s rush to mend fences with Japan stokes both hopes and concerns. The hopes are for a modest achievement -- a certain degree of amity after years of bitter feuds. The concerns constitute a minefield. They defy the administration’s contention that its predecessors were “driven by short-sighted anti-Japanism” and the results will be different this time.
Frankly, concerns override hopes. The first hurdle to rapprochement is the long-festering issue of redress for Korean forced laborers who suffered under Imperial Japan before and during World War II. Previous negotiations on such impasses have made little headway. Renewed talks will require even greater insight and wisdom -- not to mention far better diplomatic skills -- than what the Yoon administration has demonstrated since taking office last May.
Yoon has been sending explicit signals that improving relations with Japan is a top priority. No doubt forward-looking efforts for a better common future are desirable and would be welcomed by the United States and other allies of Korea and Japan. However, Yoon seems so driven that he is willing to consider unfathomable concessions. Given that Japan was a perpetrator of wartime injustice and atrocities against millions of Koreans, this is an absurd approach.
In an almost unilateral courtship, the Foreign Ministry has floated the idea of having Korean companies pay off the victims of WWII forced labor, on behalf of Japanese corporations, through a Korean government-operated foundation. The idea aligns with Japan’s position that the 1965 treaty for normalization of relations settled all questions pertaining to compensation for colonial rule “finally and completely.”
Officials at the ministry and the foundation have also stated that it would be “impossible” and “unrealistic” to expect the Japanese companies to make apologies. Instead, they said, it would be important that the Japanese government maintains and inherits its previous expressions of apology and remorse. Obviously, they speak for Japan, which doesn’t want to acknowledge crimes against humanity committed by its companies.
Seoul-Tokyo relations stalled in 2018 after Korea’s Supreme Court, ruling on one of scores of lawsuits underway on forced labor under Japanese rule, ordered Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel to pay some 100 million to 150 million won ($80,000 to $120,000) each to 15 plaintiffs, including both survivors and relatives of deceased victims. Both companies refused to obey the orders and the plaintiffs pursued legal steps to sell off their assets in Korea. The Supreme Court has delayed a decision on whether to allow the liquidation of the companies’ local assets, fearing it would further rupture ties between the two countries.
Japan reacted furiously and placed export controls on chemicals vital to Korea’s semiconductor industry. Seoul accused Tokyo of its punitive measures and threatened to terminate an agreement on sharing sensitive military intelligence, but later backed off under pressure from Washington.
As expected, the Yoon administration’s proposed plan has invited fierce criticism by victims of WWII forced labor and their legal representatives. They demand the reparations come from Japan. And more importantly, they insist that monetary compensation is not the point but a genuine and direct apology from the companies which forced them to toil in horrible conditions.
The furious backlash indicates a failure to learn from past cases of handling grievances over Japan’s colonial injustice. In 2015, President Park Geun-hye faced a predicament after signing a deal on “comfort women” with then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Tokyo agreed to provide 1 billion yen ($7.6 million) toward assisting then 46 living victims of Japanese imperial army’s sexual slavery.
A joint declaration by the two leaders proclaimed settlement of the tragic historical issue in a “final and irreversible” manner. But a civil society group representing the surviving comfort women rejected the deal as “diplomatic collusion,” insisting that the funds were merely veiled payoffs to silence the victims, who opposed terms of the agreement. Park’s successor, Moon Jae-in, dismantled the agreement, which he deemed “inconclusive,” but failed to craft an alternative solution. Now, only 10 victims remain alive. They want a sincere apology from the Japanese government for the ordeals they endured.
In 1965, Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, sought reconciliation by normalizing relations with Japan. The treaty involved $500 million in grants and loans, which served as a catalyst for Korea’s economic development. But much of the public regarded the treaty as little more than collusion with Japan, sowing seeds for feuds that continue until today. Millions of citizens and students took to the streets, protesting “humiliating diplomacy.”
Both the dictator father and his daughter paid little attention to democratic procedural legitimacy in seeking entente with the former colonizer. They made their crucial deals without consulting sufficiently with the public and the victims. Mired in low approval ratings, President Yoon does not invite opposing views, a sign of his personality and the ever-worsening partisan polarization in domestic politics. He is seemingly on the way to perpetuating the gloomy legacy of conservative administrations.
To paint a darker picture, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s administration repeats its nationalist provocations against Korea, an untimely and diplomatically insensitive behavior at this moment. Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, in his recent policy speech at the Diet, reiterated Japan’s unjust territorial sovereignty over the East Sea islets of Dokdo. A few days earlier, Tokyo resubmitted its nomination of a gold and silver mine complex on Sado Island for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The resubmission was reportedly made with an amendment to address flaws on a previous application, as suggested by the World Heritage Committee. But it replicates the omission of the historical fact that hundreds of Koreans toiled against their wishes in the hellish environment of the undersea coal mines at Hashima, or the Battleship Island, one of the 23 sites of the Meiji Industrial Revolution. The Meiji sites earned UNESCO World Heritage status in 2015, with Japan’s commitment to add explanations about Koreans who were conscripted to buttress its wartime economy. The promise has yet to be made good on.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.