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[Editorial] Turn to the future

Korea unveils plan to solve forced labor dispute to get ties with Japan back on track

March 8, 2023 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

The government announced a plan to resolve the issue of compensating Koreans who were mobilized by Japan for forced labor.

Korea was under Japanese colonial rule from 1910 to 1945. Japan mobilized Koreans for forced labor during World War II (1939-1945).

Under the plan, compensation will be paid by the Foundation for Victims of Forced Mobilization by Imperial Japan, which was created in 2014 and is currently affiliated with the Interior Ministry. The foundation plans to collect "voluntary" donations from Korean companies that benefited from the 1965 Korea-Japan treaty under which Japan offered $300 million in grants to Seoul. Tokyo adheres to its position that in that treaty, it compensated Korea for any damages suffered under its colonial rule.

As part of a deal to settle the issue, Seoul and Tokyo will also create a "future youth fund" to sponsor scholarships for students of both countries.

In a news conference following Seoul's announcement of the plan, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi said that the Japanese government is generally inheriting the historical position held by past governments, including the 1998 joint declaration by the leaders of the two countries at the time, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi.

This is an indirect expression of regret over historical issues including the forced labor dispute. In the declaration, Obuchi expressed "remorseful repentance" and a "heartfelt apology" for the ordeal inflicted on the Korean people by Japan's colonial rule.

The plan opens up a channel to the resolution of the forced labor issue that has lingered for more than four years after the Supreme Court’s ruling in October 2018. The top court ordered the two accused Japanese companies, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel, to pay compensation to 15 Korean plaintiffs. Refusing to follow the order, the firms have faced the risk of their assets in South Korea being liquidated.

The Yoon Suk Yeol administration's solution brightens the prospect of Korea-Japan relations getting back on track, but controversy at home looks inevitable. It is somewhat distant from what former forced laborers so strongly demanded -- a direct apology and compensation from the Japanese companies. Some of the plaintiffs are said to be in opposition to the plan.

It is likely the Yoon administration expected opposition and criticism. It made a difficult decision.

The previous Moon Jae-in administration unilaterally renounced the Korea-Japan agreement to compensate former Korean "comfort women" who were taken by Japan as sex slaves for its soldiers during World War II. The Moon regime incited anti-Japanese sentiment for political purposes, as his administration and the Democratic Party of Korea were unwilling to seek a solution to repair ties between Seoul and Tokyo.

The party denounces the Yoon administration's solution as diplomacy by humiliation. But its denunciation of the solution that prompted Japan into reaffirming the Kim-Obuchi declaration is self-denial. Kim was a Democratic Party president.

The plan on the forced labor compensation issue seems to be based on the judgement that bilateral relations between Seoul and Tokyo cannot be neglected indefinitely. Leaving their relations in a broken state is a loss to both sides.

Their cooperation is essential in responding to North Korea's nuclear threats, China's pursuit of hegemony and semiconductor and other economic issues. Probably the government had to consider both Korean victims and Japan's position on the 1965 treaty, as well as the common interests of Korea and Japan. Its solution is a desperate measure to resolve the problem as best as possible amid the limitations of reality.

History must not be forgotten, but now is the time to turn our eyes to the future and the national interest.

In spite of a sense of heavy burden over opposition and criticism at home, the Korean government held out its hand first. Japan should respond with proactive and future-oriented measures. If the solution arouses sympathy in both countries, their relations are likely to improve rapidly, considering historical disputes pose a great obstacle.

If Tokyo is willing to inherit the Kim-Obuchi declaration, it needs to show changes regarding other historical issues as well, such as its claims to the Dokdo islets and former sex slaves.