South Korea has launched a plan for a compensation fund for people forced to work during the Japanese occupation in World War II. Much of the money in the fund is coughed up by the South Korean government and South Korean companies; Japanese companies probably don’t have to contribute.
With the plan, South Korea is trying to reach out to Japan. Relations between the two countries had deteriorated in recent years.
Japan has already responded positively. “The government sees this as an important step to restore relations between Japan and South Korea,” Prime Minister Kishida said.
During World War II, an estimated 700,000 Koreans were forced to work for Japanese companies under appalling conditions. This is still a sensitive issue in both countries. South Korea was colonized by Japan in 1910. It remained a colony until the end of World War II.
Government leaders are now trying to improve the relationship, partly because of the growing threat from China in the region. Japan has recently announced that it will double its defense budget and is desperately looking for strong allies. South Korea’s rapprochement therefore comes as a godsend.
The US wants the two countries to interact more. The pressure to strengthen relations has therefore increased recently. President Biden calls the development “a groundbreaking new chapter of cooperation and partnership between two of the United States’ closest allies” and says it is an “important step toward a secure and prosperous future.”
Compensation with a detour
The fund was created after months of negotiations between Japanese and South Korean diplomats. Japan may have responded positively, but the reactions in South Korea are different.
Victims say compensation should come directly from the guilty organizations, but Japanese companies involved in the forced labor, such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Nippon Steel, refuse to make any commitments.
South Korea’s largest opposition party says the government has capitulated to Japan with the plan, but Foreign Minister Kim said the “vicious circle” of bad ties had to be ended “in the interest of the people”.
Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi said in a statement that the cabinet shares the position of previous governments “on historic recognition, including the October 1998 joint statement.” At the time, Prime Minister Obuchi expressed his “deep remorse and regret” at a memorial ceremony for the victims of Japanese forced labour.
No Japanese compensation
With regard to financial compensation, Japan does not change its position either. According to the government, the damage in South Korea was resolved with a compensation treaty signed by both countries in 1965.
The treaty was intended to normalize relations and was signed by South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee at the time. Around 500 million euros in cheap loans and financial support were involved, but this treaty is not recognized by many politicians in South Korea. Much of the money never reached the victims. Nor is it signed by a democratic government.
Several victims successfully sued Japanese companies in South Korea in 2018. This development was poorly received in Japan. Trade restrictions and official boycotts soon followed. Nationalist politicians from Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which Kishida leads, reacted strongly. Many of them still refuse admission of guilt.
Recognition is political suicide
Not only parliamentarians in Kishida’s party, but also his voters are conservative. National elections will be held in April, but the cabinet’s popularity is currently at an all-time low. To admit guilt would be political suicide for Kishida.
Experts also point out that this step is only a first, and that historic disputes over territory and forced prostitution during World War II are still lurking. In addition, there is no internationally binding treaty, and future political leaders can choose to close the fund or ignore the agreements.
But partly because of this, Kishida does not have to make any official commitments with this proposal, and he can thus avoid political scandals in the interior. For both Prime Minister Yoon and Kishida, this fund is therefore an opportunity to put an end to the problem and work towards better economic and military cooperation. Both countries have now indicated that they will discuss the current trade restrictions for the first time since 2020.
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