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Deal reached on forced labor: sources

Apology, compensation left out of settlement as widely anticipated

March 5, 2023 - 15:53 By Choi Si-young
Foreign Minister Park Jin briefs reporters on his meeting with the families of forced labor victims in Seocho-gu, Seoul, on Feb. 28. (Yonhap)

South Korea and Japan have reached a compromise settling a decadesold dispute over apologizing to and compensating Korean laborers forced to work for Japanese companies during World War II, sources said Sunday.

Under the arrangement Seoul will cover the cost of compensating workers while Tokyo pays into a proposed fund aimed at expanding bilateral exchanges.

The settlement, which comes 4 1/2 years after Japan refused to recognize Korea’s 2018 Supreme Court decision holding the Japanese liable for damages, will be made public Monday, according to the sources.

Japan has dismissed the Korean court ruling, citing a 1965 agreement that normalized ties following its 1910-45 rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Negotiations gained momentum in May last year, when President Yoon Suk Yeol took power. The conservative leader wants a quick resolution so that South Korea can align itself with the US, its biggest ally, to put a check on North Korea and take part in greater international endeavors. Japan’s support would facilitate such outreach.

“This week’s trip to Washington isn’t just about bolstering three-way security cooperation among Seoul, Washington and Tokyo. It’s about what the US and our alliance with it could do better to more broadly improve three-way ties,” Kim Sung-han, Yoon’s national security adviser, said Sunday at Incheon International Airport.

The five-day trip is meant to lay groundwork for Yoon’s state visit in April. Yoon is also set to meet with his Japanese counterpart at a G-7 meeting in May.

An official announcement will follow once talks fine-tuning last minute details involving forced labor are finished, Kim added, without elaborating on the exact date. The top security official instead highlighted the “next generation of young Koreans and Japanese” as key to opening a new era for the two Asian neighbors.

“As far as I know, efforts are underway for those young people to tap into their potential so they can usher in the kind of beginning we’re eyeing,” Kim said, referring to Korean and Japanese businesses as those leading the initiative.

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest-circulated daily, said Japanese businesses were considering paying into a fund offering scholarships to Korean exchange students. But the newspaper said that these proposals were not made in acknowledgement of either wrongdoing or the 2018 court ruling mandating Japanese compensation.

The newspaper added that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida could reaffirm past apologies publicly made by his predecessors, the latest of which took place in 1998. Former Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi and Korean President Kim Dae-jung set the terms for a new Korea-Japan partnership. The declaration, which discusses Japan’s “genuine reflection on its wartime past and sincere apology for it,” has since worked as parameters guiding ties.

But these moves would do little to address the demands of the victims for a formal apology and direct compensation, according to an attorney who represented the victims in the 2018 case.

Lim Jae-sung, the lawyer, said creating a scholarship fund and upholding past apologies could not replace what the victims have long wanted. Fifteen victims have so far received such Supreme Court decisions, with many more still fighting similar court battles .

Lim said reiterating the 1998 declaration offers nothing substantial to the victims waiting for closure.

“Japan has never said the declaration is an apology for this case. So telling our victims otherwise would be a lie. And since 2018, Japan has officially called the Korean forced laborers just workers who had offered labor, leaving out the part where they were ‘forced into it.’ So would the Japanese really reverse that after revisiting the past apologies?” Lim said.

He called the fund for bilateral exchanges a total non sequitur.

“It unduly releases Japan from any and all burdens” of blame, he said. “The Japanese haven’t paid a penny for what they did. … This simply is just a diplomatic failure on our part and Korea is trying to downplay that by floating a hardly relevant idea.”

Still, experts following the issue said the deal on the table “amounts to the second best” Seoul could hope for.

Park Cheol-hee, a professor of international studies at Seoul National University, said South Korea has pulled out all the stops and is now “taking the initiative” by saying it would be up to Japan whether it faces up to its history and leave behind a sincere, heartfelt apology for its wartime wrongs.

“The Yoon administration is not wasting a second second-guessing the moves his predecessors made. It is looking forward to a future where Korea will have to work with Japan eventually for global imprint it seeks. That said, a fund aimed at nurturing the next generation for future ties isn’t so out of place,” Park said.